In 1889, a 26-year-old graduate of Smith College, Florence Merriam Bailey, published Birds Through an Opera-Glass, arguably the first modern field guide to American birds, and one that, importantly, encouraged birding enthusiasts to go out and watch birds rather than shoot them.
But it was another 26-year-old, Roger Tory Peterson, who produced the book that would change birding and, some say, kick-start the environmental movement. In 1934, Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds proved the perfect tool for both novice birders and their experienced brethren; it was inexpensive ($2.75), portable (just 7.5-by-5 inches), and useful, introducing what came to be known as the Peterson Identification System, which deploys arrows to point out the distinguishing field marks discussed in the text. Peterson’s book (now $26) is a must for any birder, and here are a few more:
The Sibley Guide to Birds
544 pages, $39.95
Pros: Sibley is extremely thorough and reliable, featuring illustrations of birds in flight as well as standing, perched, or afloat; 6,600 illustrations in all.
Cons: At roughly 6-by-10 inches, it’s not very portable—though it also comes in two smaller regional (east/west) versions.
Kaufman Field Guide to Birds Of North America
392 pages, $18.95
Pros: Digitally enhanced photography (though some birders don’t like this aspect) is helpful for beginners.
Cons: Some readers complain about blurry or pale images.
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America,
576 pages, $27.95
Pros: It’s comprehensive and up-to-date, featuring all 990 species found in North America. It also has terrific maps, with major fall and spring migration routes.
Cons: Too large and heavy for practical field use; like Sibley, it comes in smaller eastern and western editions.