One of the questions I get asked the most from new birders is, “What is the best field guide?” That is a pretty tough question to answer, sort of like asking which one of your children is your favorite. It’s an impossible question to answer because, like field guides, there is something special about all of them.
When I first began birding there were not too many field guides to choose from. There was of course the still popular “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America.” Or there was ….well, “The Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America.” Obviously there was not much in the way of variety back in the day compared to the vast amount of great field guides we are lucky enough to able to take advantage of today.
Today we have not only have the traditional print guide but also a wonderful array of APPs with not only pictures of the birds but their calls and tons of other information to hopefully help you become a better birder, not to mention field guides to just about every country in the world and to almost every State and family of birds.
There are now guides to the Gulls, Sparrows and Warblers; books on Finches, Owls and Hawks; volumes on Hummingbirds, Shorebirds and Waterfowl; and even more guides just for backyard birds, feeder birds, bird feathers and even bird nests just to name a few. So like the age old question of the meaning of life, what is the best field guide of all?
The best field guide is the one you held in your hand when you showed your young son his first Downy Woodpecker in your backyard Oak. It’s the book you and your daughter both held onto together when you watched in wonder at a Northern Cardinal in the winter snow. It’s the old field guide with the soiled pages from all those wet, rainy birding mornings when you just could not stay home. The very same guide with the torn pages and the rolled up cover that spent time in your bag, trunk, plane and especially in your heart.
The best field guide was the one you kept in your pocket when you were young enough to travel from Cape May to High Point, from the Great Swamp to the Meadowlands, and not even feel tired. It’s the very same book that helped you and many old friends add a new bird to your life list, solve arguments over fall warblers and October sparrows, and the one you would never throw away that now holds a place of honor by your old binoculars that have since been retired.
The very best field guide is the one that holds all your favorite birding memories in between the pages of the Egrets and Orioles. The one you can hand down when the right time is near and the one that will forever hold onto your love of birds not matter who is holding it in their hands on a frosty cold morning. There is no APP that I know of that will ever be able to replace a book.
Whether it was your first Bald Eagle or your first Red-winged Blackbird they are all held inside one small book waiting to be reopened and reread for all to hear whenever you are ready. The reminiscences and recollections of old friends that are gone, family that has grown up and a lifetime of your birding adventures held together by a paper cover and bound by many , many birds and the stories that go along with them. The stories you will never forget.
On some hot summer evening, a cold winter night or just some special time you want to conjure up days gone by, open up your old field guide and thumb through the pages nice and slow. You will feel the cold winds of winter, the warm breezes of spring; hear the Wood thrush song as well as the voices of friends. You might remember birds you thought you had forgotten and remember places you need to return to. The books that can do that are truly the best field guides of all.