What Bird Guide Is Best For You?

Whether you’re just getting started or looking for the perfect warbler app, you’ll find the right guide here.
On the right a stack of bird guide seats on the ground, on the left a person wearing boots.
Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

More than 850 species of birds inhabit the United States. Sure, all of them have the same basic structure: two wings, feathers, a beak on the face. But things get pretty complicated after that, which is why birders (of every skill level) have guides to help them sort one species from another.

Birders today have many more options for choosing a field guide than ever before, and mobile apps have changed the playing field even further. To help you navigate the growing world of bird guides, here’s a handy rundown of the different choices available.

Traditional Guides

Modern field guides are rooted in the paintings of John James Audubon and other early naturalists who worked to identify and record the breadth of American birdlife. Those early illustrations laid the groundwork for our modern incantation: thick books filled with images of birds in their varied plumages, accompanied by range maps and text. While each of the following books takes that approximate format,  each takes a unique approach. Here’s where each shines.

Best Overall Guide: The Sibley Guide to Birds

The Sibley Guide instantly became the industry standard when it was released in 2000, and it remains on top thanks to its comprehensiveness, cleanliness and simplicity. Employing the classic David Sibley drawings, the book presents more plumages and subspecies than any other guide, but never overwhelms. Look for the second printing of 2014’s Second Edition if you want to avoid minor printing issues that caused a stir with the first printing.

Best Photo Guides: The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America and the Kaufman Field Guide to the Birds of North America

Hardcore birders love to debate which field guide format is best: photos or illustrations. It’s easier to draw a bird into the position and plumage you want, the argument goes, but photos more accurately portray how a bird actually looks in the field. Of these two excellent guides, Kaufman is more compact and portable, while the heftier Stokes has more photos of each bird.

Best Guide for Visitors to the U.S.: The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

The great innovation of the new Crossley guide is the use of multiple photos for each species, showing the bird from the variety of angles that one might encounter in the field. However, the most useful elements are the large background habitat photos, putting each species in a context that no other guide can match. (NOTE: this guide currently only comes in an Eastern U.S. version, so this isn’t the one to get if you’re visiting the West Coast).

Best Guide for the Field - National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America - With stunning artwork and comprehensive coverage, the National Geographic guide remains the favorite of many serious birders. Its compact size and relatively light weight—more than a pound lighter than Sibley—makes it the best guide to take on a hike.

Best Classic - Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America - Roger Tory Peterson invented the modern field guide when his Guide to the Birds was released in 1934.  Though newer guides have surpassed Peterson in usefulness and presentation, the colorful, lively artwork included here evokes an unmatched love of birds and birding. Peterson released an enlarged and updated version in 2008, but at heart it’s still the same guide you used to find on your grandfather’s shelf.

Specialized Guides

Certain segments of the bird world require a more in-depth look than a traditional field guide can give, and a host of specialized field guides have sprung up to help. Specialized field guides permit birders to dig deep into complicated identification issues and revel in the details of particular families.

The Warbler Guide

Sparrows of the US and Canada

Hawks in Flight

Hawks from Every Angle

The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors

The Shorebird Guide

Peterson Reference Guide to Gulls of the Americas

Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America

Rare Birds of North America

Each of these books is an excellent companion for the advanced birder. The Warbler Guide, released last year, stands out for its comprehensive and multi-pronged approach to a large group of beautiful birds. You can’t go wrong with any of the raptor guides, though Crossley’s comprehensive photo-collage technique achieves its maximum usefulness here. The Peterson gull guide is in the most need of an update and renovation, though the depthless complexities of gull identification often mean that book is necessary, anyway.

Well there you have it. Reinforce the shelving on your bookcase, make sure your iPhone is charged up, then get out and find some birds.