Field guides can be intimidating to any kid who’s just getting into birding. There are hundreds of different North American species to flip through, many of which appear dizzyingly alike (I’m talking about you, Empidonax flycatchers). There’s confusing jargon, from “coverts” and “auriculars” to “riparian” and “hybridization.” And then there’s the weight: For some of the heftier ones, it’s like lugging around an unabridged dictionary.
That’s why kid-friendly guides are the way to go. Most of them offer a simpler layout—with short descriptions and range map—and only include common species that young birders are likely to see close to home. More importantly, they have easy-to-reference photos and colors that really pop, Casey O’Connor, an employee at Cape Cod’s famed Bird Watcher’s General Store, says.
Ultimately, selecting the right field guide for a budding Roger Tory Peterson or Phoebe Snetsinger comes down to a few things: age, where they are in their birding journey, whether an experienced birder will be helping them, and what draws them in visually, according to Karen S. McDonald, the education program coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland, who works with about 5,000 schoolchildren a year. “I’d let them look at [the guides] in the store and see what they like,” McDonald says.
These six titles came highly recommended by birding instructors, teachers, and our own field testing.
The Young Birder's Guide to North America; $12, ages 9 to 12. This comprehensive guide, part of the eminent Peterson series, features 300 North American species, along with a myriad of tips on how to be a better birder (dress right, don’t freak the birds out, clean your binoculars frequently, etc.). It also includes a checklist for lifers and assures its readers that birding is cool, citing feather-struck presidents and rock stars as proof. While it’s mostly a photographic guide, it does incorporate some drawings to highlight species-specific behaviors and characteristics.
National Audubon Society First Field Guide: Birds; various used prices, ages 9 to 12. This pocket-size primer starts out with a brief lesson on what makes a bird a bird, touching on taxonomy, anatomy, flight, eggs, and the various types of feathers. It then morphs into a real field guide with close-up images of 50 common North American species, plus smaller photos of about 125 others.
Stokes Beginner's Guide to Birds; $8, for Western and Eastern, all ages. Like the Audubon book, the Stokes Beginner’s Guide series (broken up into Eastern and Western birds, and also available for shorebirds, hummingbirds, and bird feeding) depends on eye-grabbing photos to engage the reader and is easy to carry everywhere. Unlike Audubon, it illustrates differences between male and female plumages when relevant. The guide is organized by color, which makes it perfect as a quick reference.
National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America; $16, ages 8 to 10. Some birders prefer drawings to photographs, but there are pros and cons to both. Nat Geo resolves the age-old conundrum by including illustrations and stills of the majority of the 100 species it profiles in this book. The birds are lumped together by habitat—for example, Eastern backyards or rivers and marshes—rather than taxonomically, with fun facts on all of them. As an added bonus, the guide shows how to make a birdfeeder and birdbath, how to draw avians, and what people can do to help protect them.
The Sibley Guide to Birds; $40, all ages. There comes a point in every birder’s life when a starter guide will no longer do. For me, it came during a fifth-grade trip to the Everglades, when I realized I wanted to identify every bird in the country. For those ready to make such a leap, there are a number of great “adult” field guides; the Sibley Guide turned out to be the best fit for me.
As a parent, I’ve learned the Sibley doubles as an engrossing picture book for my 21-month-old son. (He’s apparently decided that the other bird books I’ve shown him are too elementary.) During our walks around the neighborhood, he’ll cry out “bird” every time we spot one of the local crows, scrub-jays, or California Towhees. I have Sibley to thank for that.
Merlin Bird ID; free, all ages. If a book can’t get a kid’s attention, then a smartphone ought to do the trick. This free app, designed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, boils down the ID process into five simple questions, making it the perfect tool for early birders. “What size was the bird?” “What were the main colors?” Using these answers, Merlin will then come up with a list of possible species matches. “I’ve had a huge amount of success using that with kids because kids are like magically intuitive when it comes to technology,” Kelly Schaeffer, an education specialist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says. The latest feature also lets you upload a photo and have the visual-recognition software identify it for you.