Saturday, June 21, 2008

Smithsonian Field Guide Review

Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America - Ted Floyd

Before going into the big picture of my overall impression of this new photographic guide, here are some of the basic mechanics:

The introduction section I find very well written and engaging. On the fascination with birds, the simple statements "Every bird has its own story" and "Birds do things. Their behaviors are sophisticated, their populations are dynamic" had me nodding my head in agreement, thinking 'I really do like birds' (as if there was any doubt!). There are sections on habitat and behavior with more detail than I was expecting. The 'parts of a bird' section is the best - comparing specific pictures of birds with individually-specific diagrams of the different plumage terminology is very effective. Including information on molt strategies was another particularly noteworthy detail. Overall, I find the introduction to be one of the most novel parts of the book.

The very best part of the Smithsonian Guide is the detailed accounts for each family, and the topic essays spread throughout. The amount of family-level information in these accounts is unlike any other field guide out there... from taxonomy to family-level behavior and morphology traits to conservation concerns.

As an example, take this excellent tract on the taxonomy of vireos:

Not long ago, the vireos appeared immediately before the wood-warblers in North American field guides. It made sense: the vireos are small, arboreal, migratory, insectivorous passerines that are just a little duller and slower than most wood-warblers. The vireos were a perfectly logical "warm-up" to the hyperactive and gaily colored wood-warblers. We have since learned that, taxonomically, the vireos do not belong anywhere near the wood-warblers; rather, they are part of a large Australasian lineage that is also represented in North America by the shrikes and corvids. The delineation of this group of 1000+ species was one of the biggest shakeups ever in avian taxonomy, and it represents one of the crown jewels of the molecular approach to understanding evolutionary relationships among birds.

This detail, combined with a very engaging writing style, is unparalleled among field guides with usually concise, brief summaries. It makes the guide fun to read, rather than just a reference with pictures.

The species accounts are in taxonomic order by family and order, with varying amounts of detail given to each species - some pages feature one species while other pages feature several easy-to-identify species with limited ranges. One annoying quirk of the layout is that very similar, closely-related species get split across different pages, meaning you have to flip back-and-forth to compare Dowitcher, Ptarmigan, Sage-Grouse, and Bluebird species. Simple, inconsequential changes in taxonomic order could have alleviated this.

Taxonomically, there are few complaints, as the book follows the AOU standard. Each section of species is inconsistently broken down by either order or family, this can be confusing until one consults the group account. I'm sure I could find minor things to nit-pick, but I'll only mention one: the guide lists House Sparrow as family Passeridae (correctly) but labels the family as "Weaver-Finches" which makes no sense at all. I've only ever heard that family referred to as Old World Sparrows. Weaver-Finch must refer to a whole complex of families including Ploceidae and Estrildidae. I'm not even sure any species of these goes by weaver-finch, but using this name to refer to a complex of families when you only need to reference one kind of annoyed me.

Each species is illustrated with one to several excellent photographs. While all photos used are excellent, the choice of what to illustrate is very irregular. Some female and immature plumages are pictured, others aren't. Many species don't have flight shots, or if they do it shows only one surface of the wing. I suppose the object was to only show what was needed to get the main field marks, and I suppose there is no necessity to see the underwing patterns of various warblers to be able to identify them. On the other hand, the guide doesn't even have a flight shot of an adult Herring Gull - a key benchmark species to consider when looking for rarer gulls.

Information accounts for each species are brief. The maps are boldly colored and take some getting used to. The guide uses orange for migration and yellow for rare occurance. For someone used to the dotted pattern of vagrancy and pale yellow migration routes in a guide like Sibley, this takes some getting used to. Map coloration is just an aesthetic choice, though, so I can't well complain there.

I have given the included bird song DVD only a cursory run-through. The song cuts seem like fine choices. Including a reference picture with each call for display in iTunes or an mp3 player is a really interesting feature. I only wish, however, that a guide emphasizing the holistic method of bird identification would go the full measure and include the full suite of songs of North American birds. Including the DVD at all was a great first step but they could've taken it so much further.

Now for the big picture - what kind of impression does this guide make on me? I received a review copy of this new photo field guide with some trepidation - I've never met a comprehensive photo field guide I liked, but I didn't want to pass up an opportunity to change my mind. Of course, I can't let my own preconceptions about what a makes a good field guide cloud my judgement. Any review must take into account the field guides' own stated agenda. In the Smithsonian Guide's own words: "The Smithsonian Guide has two special emphases that reflect emerging trends in the field identification of birds. The first is a focus on natural variation within and among species, and the second is a "holistic" view of the bird as a sum of its behavioral, ecological, and morphological parts" ... "The goal of this "holistic" approach is to equip users with the best possible tools to identify birds simply and enjoyably in the field."

On the first focus of the guide - natural variation - I feel the Smithsonian Guide simply fails. Birds are extremely variable at every level - differences across species, gender, age, season, feather wear, and simple individual variation exists. Encapsulating that variation fully in a field guide is impossible, but it can be done better than the Smithsonian Guide. The Smithsonian Guide gets it right in species accounts such as Scarlet and Western Tanagers, Red-tailed Hawk, and others, with many photographs of varying ages and genders. Yet, the guide appears to only pay lip service to variation in most species, with only one or two pictures and simple statements like "strong age-related and sex-related differences". For an advanced birder (which I like to consider myself sometimes), I know what kinds of differences these statements imply, and can use a holistic approach to identify odd plumages by giss, calls, etc. A novice birder, building their knowledge of the holistic approach and variation, cannot simply be expected to build it with such incomplete information. Finally, how can one focus on variation when all one gives is a single measurement of weight and length for each species? These are variable measures that can be critical if one considers similar species that overlap (think Coopers and Sharp-shins, the intermediate individuals can be very difficult).

If you take out the more difficult variation in birds - the immature plumages, the variability, the feather wear - then I do believe the novice can use this guide to build a simple holistic view of birds and their identification. As stated above, the guide is intended to "identify birds simply and enjoyably". The relatively few pictures for any given species in the guide will be sufficient to identify a majority of the easy species out there. When the novice has built a sufficient base of knowledge, they can move on to more detailed guides such as Sibley or especially family guides such as those on gulls or shorebirds to move into the real challenges of bird identification.

This is my problem with photographic field guides in general. Bird identification cannot be encapsulated in one to three photographs per species to the extent expected of intermediate to advanced birders. I do still use them, though. Occasionally at work, where I review video footage of various bird species, I cannot always confidently identify bird species due to the angle or quality of footage, and I consult both photographic field guides such as the Smithsonian Guide (in the future) or the Kaufman guide, to get a better idea of general impression of a living bird. I've been birding since I was a very young kid and am well past the novice stage, but I can still see how a novice would find a general photographic guide useful in this sense. It can be much easier trying when comparing the bird you are observing to compare it directly to pictures of similar species than to try to interpret paintings of other species, when you haven't already built an internal holistic image of various groups of birds. By far the best utility of photographic guides for the advanced birder lies not in these comprehensive guides, but in the overwhelming detail of family books, such as the excellent Shorebird Guide, which use a wealth of photographs to actually illustrate variation in species.

So, after all my rambling, how does the Smithsonian Guide stand up? It is limited in use due to the overall limitations of the general photographic guide, but within its class it is an excellent book. The images are quality, the writing and information is absolutely superb, it includes bird songs, and the overall presentation is quite good. I think it will earn its place on my crowded shelf.

For other reviews of this guide, see The Drinking Bird, A DC Birding Blog, 10,000 Birds, and Birdchaser. I purposely refrained from reading them until I finally got my own review written. Now I have to go read their insightful comments and see what I got wrong...

My thanks go to Anne at the Book Report Network for providing a review copy of the Smithsonian Guide (a first for this blog!). Thanks Anne!


  1. Re: Weaver Finches
    Peterson's 4th edition Eastern has House Sparrow in Weaver Finches (Ploceidae) with a comment of 263 species (35 sparrow-weavers). How that ended up in this one I have no idea.

  2. Nice review. I, too, have some reservations about photo guides in general, but this is probably the best one I've yet seen.

    I'm with you about a lot of stuff. The text is phenomenal, and that and the quality of the photos for photos sake alone, make it worth dropping a few bucks on.

  3. I can possibly explain the weaver-finches issue. Despite the common error, the name Passeridae Rafinesque, 1815, actually has priority over the name Ploceidae Sundevall, 1836, so if the two are to be included in the one family then the name for that family is Passeridae, not Ploceidae. I believe the error was corrected by Sibley & Monroe in the process of compiling their checklist of bird species of the world.

  4. Thanks, Chris and Jason. Still, calling house sparrow a weaver-finch just confuses the issue. How the heck do you come up with that info, Chris? I like to think I'm well versed in avian taxonomy but even I can't pull that stuff out on a whim.

    Nate - thanks.

  5. The virtues of being obsessive-compulsive, I suppose :-). Plus I pulled the dates out of Bock (1994).

    Bock, W. J. 1994. History and nomenclature of avian family-group names. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 222: 1-281.

  6. That seems like a good reference to keep handy, thanks.

  7. Great review and glad to hear about so many bloggers getting these review copies! I would have to believe this will happen to all of us in the future!

  8. Thanks Tom. I am quite impressed to see the extent to which bloggers were contacted for this book's promotion. It seems somebody in management has some bright ideas!

  9. Wow- what a detailed, thoughtful review. Thanks for some good reading.

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