Review: The Stokes Field Guide To The Birds of North America
Donald & Lillian Stokes, Little Brown, 2010
The astounding growth in the popularity of birding has created a positive feedback loop between birders and publishers which has incentivised field guide authors and publishers to further evolve a genre which would have seemed fully developed more than a decade ago. With at least a dozen guides to North American birds on the market which deserve serious consideration, one wouldn’t think there is anything new to say about identifying birds here on our home turf. But Donald and Lillian Stokes, with the publication of their new North American field guide, have persuaded me to make room on my shelf for one more. This first couple of birding has, over the years, consistently produced useful tools which have improved my birding skills and my enjoyment. I first became a fan of the Stokes’s in the 1980s when they published books on bird and insect behavior and on nature in winter. Their oeuvre has since expanded to include several field guides, recordings of bird songs, and now a new photographic field guide to all the birds of North America.
The new Stokes guide, along with the Steery/Small guides (published last year), should put to rest any remnants of the debate over photos versus illustrations. Photographic guides have absolutely come into their own as important and useful tools for identifying birds. The key to any guide, photographic or illustrated, is in the quality of the images and in having enough of them to show the birds in their diagnostic plumages and postures. The new Stokes Field Guide to North American Birds fulfills this requirement in spades. It includes over 3,400 photos of the 854 birds which appear in North America. The book is 790 pages and weighs in at a hefty 3 pounds. Therein lies the rub. Although the new Stokes guide is an outstanding addition to the arsenal of birding tools, it isn’t really a field guide because very few people will want to carry it in the field. I hope that the publishers will, at some point, divide this guide into Eastern and Western editions.
Since the photos are the heart of the book, let’s start there. The new Stokes guide includes the work of dozens of well known bird photographers including Kevin Carlson (co-author of The Shorebird Guide),Brian Wheeler (who has authored and photographed several raptor guides), and Jerry Ligouri (author and photographer of Hawks From Every Angle). There are enough photos of each bird to allow us to identify them in all of their plumages. For example, there are 11 photos of the Great Black-backed Gull, 6 of the Hermit Thrush, 7 of the Long-billed Dowitcher, and 5 of the Willow Flycatcher. All the photos are labeled with the sex, age, season, and location of the bird when it was photographed. Most of the photos are at least very good, but there are places where I would have made other choices, particularly those of some of the sparrows which appear poorly exposed, but I hasten to point out the perfect field guide has yet to be published.
The text is, perhaps, the most expansive of any one-volume North American guide in print. The text describes the bird’s shape and field marks in adult and juvenile plumages, flight style, habitat, and vocalizations. The text uses an approach, which I found very useful, called “quantitative shape” to describe anatomical features (i.e., bill length and thickness, tail length, shape and length of neck, etc.) in proportion to the other parts of the bird. It also includes the ABA Birding Codes which give a short-hand account of how common or uncommon the bird is. The numbers go from one to six (1 indicates an extremely common bird. 6 indicates that the bird is presumed extinct). There are also, as you would expect, up-to-date range maps. The birds are organized according to phylogenic order, and the families are made easier to locate with colored bars along the bottoms of the pages. Finally, the book includes a CD of 600 vocalizations of 150 of the most common birds.
No matter how many North American guides you own, you will absolutely want The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Whether or not you are inclined to carry it around with you, the new Stokes guide will improve your identification skills and your enjoyment. The book has lived on my night stand since it arrived in my home, and I haven’t been able to put it down.
October 9, 2010