Reviewed by Grant McCreary on February 1st, 2007.
The National Geographic guide is one of the more popular field guides to North American birds (here, as in the guide, North America refers to the lower 48 states, Alaska, and Canada). Four years after the last edition hit the shelves a “fully revised and updated” fifth edition has been released. The guide now includes 967 species – every species officially recorded at the time of printing. So how revised and updated is it? The changes will be explored, but first I’ll give a brief overview of the guide.
It starts with a standard introduction. The usual topics are covered such as species selection, the parts of a bird, molt, plumage sequence, and behavior. A key to the range maps is also provided. There are some standard topography illustrations to go along with the text descriptions of the parts of a bird. However, more detailed bird topography diagrams are included on the inside of the front cover. These diagrams include a representative passerine, hummingbird, shorebird, gull, and a spread upper wing. These are among the best and most complete topography diagrams I have seen. Those in the “large” Sibley guide are a bit more extensive, but the diagrams here are more accessible.
The species accounts have the plates on the right-hand page with the text and range maps on the facing page. All, or at least most, of the various forms of each species are illustrated. Most of the non-passerines are also shown in-flight, while the majority of the passerines are not. In addition to the in-flight birds included on the main plates there are also separate plates of in-flight ducks, female raptors, shorebirds, and immature gulls to allow for easier comparison. This is the only major North American field guide that does not utilize the “Peterson system” of having arrows pointing to field marks (I count the Sibley, Kaufman, and Peterson guides as the other majors). I find that these arrows are very helpful, especially if they include a brief description of what to look for as Sibley does. They keep you from having to keep looking back-and-forth between the text and the illustrations.
The artwork has been provided by 20 different artists. While some differences in style are unavoidable, it has been kept to a minimum overall. But in some cases it can be pretty jarring. For example, I don’t particularly care for the illustrations of most of the vireos. However, a few of them are noticeably different and look much better to me. A check of the artist credits confirm that these (Thick-billed, Gray, Philadelphia, and Warbling) were done by different artists.
I have only found one obvious error in the illustrations thus far. The bill of the Eskimo Curlew has been severely truncated. This is obviously a printing/formatting mistake as the illustration was correct in the previous edition. The fact that you can make out an “adult” label inside the bird also confirms this. Additionally, the label in the plate for the Common Greenshank is misspelled “Grenshank”.
The text mostly consists of descriptions of the bird’s various forms. Songs and calls are described where appropriate. For those without a map (vagrants and such), the normal range is given, along with their North American appearances. For those with a range map this section is used to describe their habitat and abundance.
So what’s new? Here’s a rundown of the changes:
- Cover – the cover is laminated and sturdier and “will withstand any type of weather”. I’m not going to put that claim to the test, but it does seem like it will hold up better. There is also a flap on the inside of both covers. The front flap has an index to bird families and the back flap has an alphabetical index.
- Thumbtabs – there are tabs for Hawks, Sandpipers, Gulls, Flycatchers, Warblers, Sparrows, and Finches. These are handy, especially for those not yet familiar with the taxonomic order.
- Species accounts – the order has changed to match the latest AOU revision. Thus, the ducks and geese are now first. The family intros now also include the number of constituent species in the world and in North America.
- Range maps – the maps are noticeably larger than in the previous edition. Some of the maps have also been updated.
- Illustrations – there have been many changes. These are listed fully on a separate page. Thankfully the illustrations that I considered the worst in the 4th edition have been fixed (i.e. the chickadees and titmice).
- Accidental species – a separate list of 67 accidental and four extinct species has been added. Each of these species has a text account and one illustration, usually of the form that has appeared most often in NA.
- Appendix for Greenland and Bermuda – summarizes the avifauna of these countries. Included is a list of birds recorded in these two countries that have not been in the ABA area
Each of these changes has improved the guide. This edition is clearly superior to previous ones. It is more usable, has more information, and in many cases the art has been significantly upgraded. The one negative change is that this new edition is slightly larger. It has grown about a quarter inch (one centimeter) in width, presumably to accomodate the thumbtabs and larger maps.
Field guide preference is very personal and subjective if you have several quality guides to choose from. Personally this new edition is not going to take the place of Sibley as my primary field guide. This guide includes more species, but the Sibley has more illustrations of each included species, and arrows pointing out the major field marks. But one can never have too many field guides! I would highly recommend this fifth edition to any North American birder who does not own a previous edition, or who uses a previous edition as their primary guide. On the other hand, if you have a previous edition that is used as a backup/secondary guide then the decision to upgrade is more difficult. For those birders I would recommend getting the National Geographic Complete Birds of North America instead, as that would be more useful than an updated field guide.