Sparrows of the United States and Canada: The Photographic Guide

by David Beadle and James D. Rising

Reviewed by Grant McCreary on December 9th, 2006.

cover of Sparrows of the United States and Canada: The Photographic Guide

Publisher: Princeton University Press
Date: November, 2001
Illustrations: photographs
Binding: softcover
Pages: 320
Size: 5 1/2″ x 8 1/2″
MSRP: $29.95

comparison front view

comparison side view

This is another excellent entry in the Princeton Photographic Guide series. It follows the pattern set by the other guides in the series. It starts with an introduction and is followed by the 64 species accounts. The photos are included at the end of each species account.

The introduction is fairly short, but contains some good information. It starts with some general sparrow identification tips. The reader is instructed to ask questions when encountering an unknown sparrow. First start with the size – how large is it? Then look at the markings, especially the breast and head. Then note how it acts. How is it foraging? When it flushes what does it do? And finally, where is it? Check the habitat against the expected species. This is followed by a brief overview of each sparrow genus. There are four line drawings labeled with the various feather tracts. Finally, there are representative photographs and descriptions of thirteen habitats.

The species accounts are presented in taxonomic order and consist of 1.5-5 pages of text followed by up to 19 photographs. The text consists of the following:

  • Measurements – weight in grams; length and wing in centimeters and inches. The wing length is for one wing only, not the entire wingspan.
  • Introduction – a brief summary of important features for identification. The identifying characteristics are in bold.
  • Habitat – breeding, nonbreeding, and migration
  • Behavior – including singing behavior, feeding techniques, and how they flush
  • Voice – songs and calls
  • Similar species – how to differentiate this species from others that might be confused with it
  • Geographic variation – lists any subspecies and their breeding and wintering grounds and any identifiable differences
  • Distribution – breeding and wintering areas, migration sites and routes, and vagrant records
  • Conservation status – population trends and threats
  • Molt – what is molted (complete or partial), when, and where
  • Description – generally the largest section, it describes all recognizable plumages such as breeding and nonbreeding adults, first winter birds, and juveniles
  • Hybrids – if any have been confirmed or suspected
  • References – where to look for more information on the species

The photographs are uniformly excellent. The photos are mostly the same size, and feature a good, close look at a single bird. The photographs are all captioned with the age and sex of the subject where known, as well as the features to look for in the picture. Additionally, in what should be a feature for all photographic guides, the captions also include the location and date (month and year) the photo was taken. Thankfully there are plenty of photos, from a multitude of angles, for each species. Even if you ignore the text itself (which is not recommended) the photos and their captions should be sufficient for identification.

With the exceptions of the vagrants each species has a range map. The maps are a good size and show the entirety of North America and the north west corner of South America. Instead of identical maps for all species it would have been nice to have them individually tailored so that more detail could have been seen. But as it is they are sufficient. There is one obvious error in the map for the Chipping Sparrow. There is a large blank area between the summer and winter ranges, seemingly indicating that they are absent from a section of the Great Plains and much of the southeast. Presumably this is just a printing mistake and the color for permanent residency was simply left off (at least for the southeastern portion).

There are also two appendices that could easily be overlooked, and in fact I did so until writing this review. Don’t make this mistake. The first is a comparison table for fall Chipping, Clay-colored, and Brewer’s Sparrows. The second is for winter longspurs. These tables compare the species over a set of characteristics such as bill, supercilium, nape, and tail. These are an extremely helpful summary of relevant field marks.

A fantastic feature of the Princeton photographic guides is the use of the front cover flap to list all the species and their page numbers. It is much easier and quicker to use than a standard table of contents, although there is one of those also.

The species list includes some names that you might not be familiar with. The authors have split some subspecies into full ones. Bell’s Sparrow is split off from the nominate Sage Sparrow. Additionally, the Fox Sparrow has been split into four species – Sooty, Slate-colored, Thick-billed, and Red Fox Sparrow. No reasoning for these changes are given in the species accounts, which may be confusing for some readers when they don’t see these species in their field guides. However, the authors do mention this decision in the overview of the genus in the introduction. The members of the Dark-eyed Junco complex are not elevated to full species, but they are treated separately. They each have their own account, but unfortunately there is only one cumulative range map.

The authors consider this guide a companion to, not a replacement for, their previous work – A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada, which has more extensive text and paintings instead of photographs. For identification purposes I would disagree. I would recommend this photographic guide above the other due to the fine photographs and text that seems more focused on identification. However, that does not mean the previous work is without merit. It contains additional information, such as breeding ecology, not found in the photographic guide along with some very nice artwork. Please see my review for a more detailed comparison.

For aid in the identification of these “little brown jobs”, this is the book to get.

For more information visit Princeton University Press

Category: Advanced ID, Family Guides

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4 Comments

  • Jean says:

    Oops. I just posted the wrong review to this book. Here’s the correct one:

    Living in north central Texas, on what used to be tallgrass prairie, we get loads of wintering sparrows. With great winter weather, we get outside a lot, and the sparrows give us somethig that challenges our observation skills since they’re in their drabbest plumages. When we go birding in winter, I always take along this book to have in the car for reference. (It’s a little too odd-sized to fit in the pockets of my cargo pants or pocket vest.)

    I especially like the many photos of winter plumages and the description of winter habitat and behavior, although both of those could use a little more detail. The photos are labeled with the month and location of where/when they were taken. Very helpful. And for those species that have a high variability of plumage across individuals or regions, the book provides more representation than anything else I’ve seen.

    The front cover folds in and contains a table of contents for the species. I know that it’s common convention to list the birds in taxonomical order, but that pretty much makes the quick index useless to me. It really ought to be order of common name. (I know, I know! Not everyone agrees with this idea.) However, this isn’t that big of a deal for me.

    It’s the photos that make this book most useful for me. And it hits the mark for that.

  • It’s the photos that make this book most useful for me. And it hits the mark for that.

    Thanks :)

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