How to use a field guide

Published: July 20, 2020

evening grosbeak Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

The first summer I started birding, I took a trip to Algonquin Provincial Park, prepared to see greatness. I had a field guide, binoculars, and a list of target species, graciously provided by my birding group leader. How hard could it be to find a gray jay, a boreal chickadee, spruce grouse, black-backed woodpecker, evening grosbeak, and a common loon? As it turns out, when you’re looking all the wrong places and have no idea how to properly use a field guide, it’s next to impossible. 

I had bought the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, recommended to me for its user-friendly layout, but I had no idea how to use it. I looked up the birds in question and then looked up at the trees and tried my best to turn every black-capped chickadee I saw into a boreal chickadee, or better yet, the rarer, never-seen-before-in-Algonquin Carolina chickadee. With no understanding of bird habitat, bird families, I transformed everything I saw in to my target species. Even the best field guide in the world couldn’t help me.

Jody Allair, director of citizen science and community engagement at Birds Canada, recommends “learning to look at birds as being part of a particular family (or taxonomic order),” which is thankfully much easier than it sounds. “Once you’ve isolated the grouping—woodpecker, raptor, duck, songbird—then you can get to the right section of the book.” My near-total frustration at trying to locate a tiny white-breasted nuthatch amidst the hawks and falcons could have been avoided entirely.

It turned out that I was doing things entirely backwards. Allair encourages beginners to “become conscious of the process of identifying birds by their shape, size, colour, and keep a mental image or do a sketch/make notes before going to a field guide. The field guide look-up should be the last part of the process.” Rather than willing a black-backed woodpecker into existence by staring at its image in the field guide, I would have been better served to marvel at the beauty, shape, and colour of the downy woodpeckers in front of me, and then I’d have a greater chance at identifying them as such in the field guide. As it was, I missed out on nearly every bird I saw because I was searching for the bird I hoped to see! 

Sibley’s field guide now has a fantastic companion piece: an intuitive app for phones or tablets, complete with bird-song recordings. And in addition to the traditional field guide, Allair also recommends Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID App “as a tool that helps people learn to how to identify birds through a series of simple questions” after which the app “generates a focused list of birds you can find around you.” Knowing which birds to expect at a specific location and time of year is, in Allair’s words, “a game changer.”  

But remember to observe the bird in front of you in as much detail as you can before turning to the field guide or app. And prepare to be astonished, because the closer you look, the more beauty you’ll see. 

Read more: Take a peek into the secret world of birds’ eggs

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