Book Review – Field Guide to Birds of North America

NWF Field Guide to Birds of North America
Win a copy of Field Guide to Birds of North America - see contest details below.

National Wildlife Federation
Field Guide to Birds of North America

Edward S. Brinkley
Sterling Publishing Company
527 pages

I’m always looking for good natural history reference books and discovered the National Wildlife Federation’s Field Guide to Birds of North America while browsing the nature section in Chapters. I thought that it would be worth while to take a closer look at the book and share my review.

One of my acid tests for any nature guide is its usability in the field and this NWF guide book performs fairly well. The table of contents is nicely handled – rather than a simple list of of bird groups it also includes two to three thumbnail photographs of representative species for each category. I can see this feature being very helpful for beginning birders who might not know which group a specific bird belongs to but who are able to match its basic form with a picture of a similar looking bird. Each section in the main part of the book is colour coded for quick referencing.

The book is structured with a comprehensive introduction that touches on the different parts of a bird, details of variation in plumage and molts, how to identify birds and the natural history of birds. The section describing the different parts of a bird is a little light, but probably sufficient for a beginning birder. Both line drawings and photographs are used to describe a flycatcher, a sparrow (body and head detail), and a gull in flight. Compare this with The Sibley Guide to Birds which includes multiple profiles of a sparrow, shorebird, duck and gull. Mind you, the latter is a much larger book!

The book groups similar looking birds that are often found in the same habitat together in order to help with identifying similar looking species. As a result, it often diverges from AOU order, a fact that may be frustrating to birders who are used to the structure and order of the National Geographic or Sibley guides. Comparing the entries in the NWF guide with those in another guide book will require a little extra work and the use of the table of contents or index.

That being said, the bird descriptions and photographs are very nicely done. Each section has a one to two page introduction and an overview of the natural history of the birds it features. The description of each bird includes good information about typical habitat, behaviour, and voice for that species. In addition, a detailed range map that identifies summer, winter, resident, and migration ranges as well as ranges for rare species. Each account is accompanied by one or more photographs of the bird being described. Helpful field marks are labeled on the images themselves. While the photographs of the individual birds are excellent, as with all photography based guides, the ability to capture (and fit onto a page) the details needed to separate out challenging problems like fly catchers, shorebirds, and gulls is limited. For these more advanced problems, guides with line drawings are probably better suited.

Thinking about abuse in the field, I do have a minor concern with the physical quality of the book itself. My first bird book was a National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America which took quite a beating and yet still held up quite well before finally being replaced. While the NWF book sports a waterproof cover, the glued binding seems a little flimsy somehow and I’m not sure how it will hold up under constant use in adverse conditions.

Overall, the National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America is a great little book for the beginning birder or as a reference book for the home library. The detailed natural history profiles of each group of birds makes it a little more than a simple field guide. The photographs make it a very enjoyable book to own.

Check out these two reviews of photograph based field guides. Rob Fergus at The Birdchaser has a great post that describes the Evolution of the Bird Photo Field Guide and The Birder’s Library has a good quick overview of the features of five photograph based field guides.


The book reviewed was provided by National Wildlife Federation at my request. I am not being paid to write this review and am happy to pass my copy on to a birder who needs it.

Win the Book!

If you’re interested in winning a copy of Field Guide to Birds of North America, simply visit the National Wildlife Federation website and find the answer to this skill testing question, “What is the mission of the National Wildlife Federation?” Email me the answer using my Contact page. Contest closes midnight February 28, 2010. The winner will be notified on March 1, 2010.