Updated: Apr 1
This question is one that can haunt every single person new to birdwatching. Read onward to learn our top recommendations!
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Which field guide should I buy for birdwatching?
I am frequently asked this question by those who are new to the birdwatching community. If they are looking for their first field guide, I have an easy answer. If they are looking for even better reference material, then the list grows. How much does it grow? I have an industrial-style shelving unit capable of holding several hundred pounds. It holds books. I have field guides and references for every manner of animal and plant for North America, Central America, South America, Africa, and more! I have spent 20+ years curating my library of field guides for birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. So, instead of telling you to spend over a decade of your life (and too much money) sifting and sorting through hundreds of books for the right field guides, I am going to provide my top guides for the world of birdwatching. The guide links below lead to Amazon offerings.
Oh, and before we start, there are apps out there to help too. There is even an app that will identify bird photographs for you, but where is the flocking fun in that? Stupid apps taking away all the fun.
The Best Field Guides for Birdwatching
A good general field guide for birds must have high-quality graphics or photos. It also needs to help bring attention to the most useful ID points. The writing style also needs to be easily understood by those who are not familiar with bird terminology. I have two recommendations for the best overall field guides for birdwatchers who are new to the hobby:
The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds (Amazon)
Let's look at each recommendation in-depth, starting with my always number one recommended guide for those new to birding. The Sibley Guide to Birds has long been the pinnacle of general bird guides. Peterson and Golden guides stopped being updated years ago, leaving a space for the highly talented artist and birder, David Sibley, to step-in. Sibley uses paintings in his guide, which allows for control of how the birds are presented to readers. While we rarely get to see birds in optimal light and angles, learning the basics of each species is the foundation we all need when we jump into birdwatching.
The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd edition
The Crossley Guide came out shortly before I was taking my first ornithology courses in college. Richard Crossley grabbed the new wave of photography equipment and editing and rode that wave into a new type of field guide. The Crossley ID Guide uses high-quality photos of birds, placed into situations that bird-lovers experience in the field. While it focuses on birds of eastern North America, it does include some western-only species as well. After I knew my first Sibley Guide by heart, I moved to The Crossley Guide to continue my ID skill growth.
The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds
The Best Field Guides for Raptors
The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors (Amazon)
Let's look at my top recommendation, The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors, in-depth! Throughout much of this post, you will find some threads. Crossley Guides are common in several sections, and for the raptors section, one author resounds loudly. Jerry Liguori. Every book in this section has been authored, at least in part, by Jerry Liguori. He IS the top mind in raptor research in North America and possibly the world. Combine Liguori's mind and photography with Crossley's style and photography, and you have an amazing guide to raptor identification. Some of my favorite pieces of The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors are the quizzes that appear in the guide. Crossley teaches the identification of certain raptor groups, then places them into situations that challenge your newfound skills. The other two guides above are still great references, and if you have a keen interest in learning raptor identification, you should grab those as well.
The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors
The Best Field Guide for Owls
There are not many field guides for owls, and honestly, most general field guides are good enough for owls. However, if you want the best reference guide to owls of North America, here it is:
Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean
The Best Field Guides for Waterfowl
The Crossley ID Guide: Waterfowl (Amazon)
Whether you are a birdwatcher or a duck hunter, waterfowl identification is critical to both hobbies. The Crossley ID Guide: Waterfowl is a recently published guide. The photography in the guide is top-notch, and it uses the style of placing quality photographs of birds into actual situations you will experience when birding. North American Ducks, Geese & Swans also has some of the best photography you can find in waterfowl guides. If it is available, I highly recommend it. However, it can be hit and miss if it is available in stores. The Waterfowl ID Series is comprised of three pamphlet-style guides that teach the critical pieces of waterfowl ID. If you want something to tuck into your birding vehicle, these are a great addition.
The Crossley ID Guide: Waterfowl
North American Ducks, Geese & Swans Identification Guide
Waterfowl ID Series: 1, 2, & 3
The Best Field Guides for Warblers
The Warbler Guide is the top guide for North American warblers. It combines photography, graphics, and learning sound by sight. There is an accompanying app that is also very useful, but it is an additional cost. A Field Guide to Warblers of North America is also a quality guide, but it cannot compete with the work of Stephenson and Whittle. If you have to pick one, pick The Warbler Guide.
The Warbler Guide
The Best Field Guides for Shorebirds
The Shorebird Guide (Amazon)
This section is difficult to offer a recommendation for. Why? All of these guides need to be updated. However, of the available outdated guides, The Shorebird Guide is the best of the bunch. Its style and quality are in need of improvement, but for being almost 20 years old, it is very helpful. Again, you'll see a recognizable name on the cover.
The Shorebird Guide
The Best Field Guides for Hummingbirds
North American Hummingbirds: An Identification Guide is the most updated guide to hummingbirds. It combines macro photography (which means close-up and high quality) and graphics for a combination critical to proper hummingbird identification. Prior to my training as a hummingbird bander, it was my go-to for hummingbird identification. I still use it frequently as a reference. It sorts the hummingbirds by size, which can be a benefit for some birders but a hindrance for others. One great bonus, it also includes common hybrids of hummingbirds.
North American Hummingbirds: An Identification Guide
This is not a field guide, but I read this book over the Christmas season of 2019. I fell in love with its photography and information. Few books can offer a "life-sized" guide to its subjects. If you want a great read on hummingbirds, grab this book.
Hummingbirds: A Life-size Guide to Every Species
The Best Field Guides for Sparrows
If you had asked me in 2019 which guide I would recommend, the order would have been reversed. However, I have warmed up to the Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows. The photography is immaculate, and the information is up-to-date. However, the information is almost too updated. The taxonomy used in this guide has split subspecies of certain sparrows into their own species. These changes are not reflected in the recent AOS taxonomy changes, but they are possible in the near future. If you can get past that issue, this is the guide you need. If you are easily confused, Sparrows of the United States and Canada will be your style. Of course, when it comes to sparrows, who isn't easily confused?
Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America
The Best Field Guides for Gulls
Gulls suck. You said it, not me. Honestly, do you even want to try to learn gull ID? Even gull experts occasionally admit that a bird cannot be fully identified. You could just quit reading at this point and act like your library is complete. I would not blame you. If you are serious about birds though, you need one of these two guides. Any guide that has "simplified" in the title will be my first recommendation. Especially if simplified is preceded by gulls. I own both guides, and the photography in both are at the top of their game. If you are just learning gulls, go Gulls Simplified first. As you grow, grab Gulls of the World.
Gulls of the World
The Best Field Guides for Seabirds
Trying to read a book on a pelagic trip is a terrible idea for most people. So, grab Oceanic Birds of the World and keep it as a reference on land. I use the kindle version, so I have a copy with me at all times (on my smartphone). In fact, for many of these guides, I keep a digital version. There are few options for pelagic bird species, which gives this guide little competition. Even with tougher competition, this guide would rise amongst the ranks. It covers 270+ species and includes over 2,200 photographs. It is a recent publishing, so it is fairly up-to-date.
Oceanic Birds of the World
The Best Guides for Backyard Birding
My first recommendation will always be an actual field guide. However, if you want a quick reference for your backyard feeders, these two mini-guides are perfect.
All About Backyard Birds: Eastern & Central North America
All About Backyard Birds: Western North America
The Best Guides for Learning the Natural History of Birds
Handbook of Bird Biology (Amazon)
Ornithology, 4th Edition (Amazon)
If you want to learn more about the life history of birds, any of the three books above will help you. However, the Handbook of Bird Biology is a gem. I own all three, and Handbook is my first go-to. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology also offers a course to go with this textbook. If you have the time and money, both are worth your time!
Handbook of Bird Biology
That was a 7-minute read. I probably gave way too much information. BUT! You have something to start or continue your bird journey with. I could have probably just provided a link to my Amazon Storefront, but you would just click on it then get distracted by soaker hoses for your garden. Wait, no, that is just me.