How to Use a Field Guide Part 1: Remember the “guide” part of Field Guide

How to Use a Field Guide Series

By Steve N. G. Howell

Part 1: Remember the “guide” part of Field Guide

The purpose of a field guide is to guide you to the identity of things in the field, be they birds, plants, bugs, or whatever. Given this basic premise, birds that look similar should be grouped together, but often they are not. How the birds are arranged in your field guide will depend on the whims of the author(s) and the first thing to do when (or before) you buy a field guide is read the introduction and see if the guide is right for you. Is it fairly easy to use or seemingly illogical?

Then learn to flip through the book and find different groups of birds to save yourself time in the field. In this regard, a physical book is infinitely superior to any app on the market, so don’t be conned into the convenience of something that fits on your phone and takes up only virtual space. It may be virtually useless in a field situation! In tandem with a real life book, however, digital resources can be very helpful.

Use Your Field Guide

Perhaps a greatly underappreciated part of having a field guide is actually using it. Huh? I don’t mean to identify some new or strange bird, I mean using it to work on the common species you know – maybe the House Sparrows at your feeder, or the American Robins at your local park, or the Red-tailed Hawk that hangs out in your neighborhood. Yes, you know it’s a House Sparrow, or an American Robin, or a Red-tail, so you don’t need the field guide to identify it. But, and this is a big yet very simple step, why not look hard at your known species X, and then look in your field guide, at the pictures (photos or paintings), read the text, and see how well it all works for the bird you know to be species X?

In most if not all cases I bet there will be some plumage differences, some differences in beak or leg color, some habitat or behavioral things, some description of song or call, that the guide shows or talks about that you don’t see or hear – and vice versa. Clearly this doesn’t mean your bird isn’t a House Sparrow, or an American Robin, it just reveals how the entity of a single species, or a single individual of a single species, cannot be conveyed in a few words and images. What it does mean is that you will come to learn the strengths and weaknesses of your field guide (and of your own powers of observation), you will come to know your common birds better, and you will be better prepared to use your field guide when you find something different, a new species. “It looks like the book except…” Except you now have some idea of how much common birds fit with the information in the guide, and how much variation you might expect from what the guide tells you. It can therefore better guide you to a correct ID.

It’s a simple step, one that few people take, but I think you’ll be surprised by how much you can learn from the obvious. And when the not-so-obvious rears its head, you’ll be ready!


Images: (01-09) Do you really look at House Sparrows? Even male House Sparrows? Check the images here against your field guide and see if any matches up exactly? (Yes, there are male House Sparrows in each picture – keep looking…)

How about those differences in face pattern, in bill color and pattern, in chest pattern, and … Keep looking and you might even wonder if these are all really male House Sparrows – but they are (well, the House Finch and the Osprey aren’t!). And if there is this much discrepancy with something as “obvious” and “familiar” as a male House Sparrow, what will happen when you use your field guide to help identify an unfamiliar hawk or a shorebird?


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