7 Bird Field Guides for the Whole Family

Ever notice the UFO’s out there? You know, little brown (blue/yellow/red) jobs flying around? Or hey, there goes something REALLY big! Whether you can barely distinguish a sparrow from a pigeon or already have an impressive bird sighting life-list, being able to “name-that-bird” adds a whole new, fun dimension to being outdoors. 

Unidentified flying objects are quick so an equally fast bird identification tool is a must! Even the pros carry some kind of cheat sheet. Basically, there are two tools: Books and Apps. 

What's Best: Book or App? 

Being somewhat technically challenged (and a little old-fashioned?), I still love my books. And paper guides are perfect for remote areas with sketchy internet connections, as well as provide an ad-hoc check-list/note opportunity.  But - as the day wears on, the book gets heavier. 

In general, a good app on phone, tablet, or kindle is weightless and perfect for fast (friend impressing) ID!

Here is what some of my most experienced avian watching friends recommend.

Recommendations from Enthusiasts

Bird Field Guides: The Books  

Veterinarian and bird photographer, Gordon (Gordie) Ellmers’ preference is as down-to-earth as the man himself: 

“Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds" is my favorite book for identifying birds.  Birds are easy to find in that book.”

One of my favorite stories about Gordie comes from a mutual friend. When he couldn’t answer one of my bird questions, I teased him about his 40-year friendship with Gordie. Frank answered, “Yup, Gordie taught me everything I know about birds - unfortunately, he didn’t teach me everything HE knows.”    Peterson’s Field Guide fills in the blank spots. 

This is the gold standard in bird identification guides. The drawings clearly identify field identification marks, but some birders prefer the more natural looking photographs found in newer guides.

Gerald Griffiths, President of Avian Adventures and an avid lifelong birder has been bringing groups of international bird enthusiasts to the U.S. for over 25-years. I have never seen him without his Sibley Guide to the Birds of North America.

The images are absolutely gorgeous, but smaller than Peterson's. There are more similar species per page making individuals easier to compare and identify. Sibley’s also has range maps and detailed information on age, species, and subspecies appearance. This guide has a section in the front offering good tips for new birders, including clues where to look for identifying details, and it has a checklist in the back.

The only downside is that it does not contain much general information on birds and their habitats.

It is a great choice for experienced birders, naturalists, and those wanting to develop their bird identification skills.

Bird Identification Apps. Fast, Easy & Convenient! 

Apps are fast, lightweight, convenient, and provide that little hit of technology for those  who need it even in the wild. Some are free, some have a cost. We turned to our friend Elise Boeger for advice.  Here she shares her favorites: 

IBird Pro

Elise: “ iBird Pro is great for illustrations as well as pictures of birds, so you can refer to both. And lots of fascinating information on each specie." 

Best For: Moderate to Advanced Skill
Interactive: Yes
Song Identification: Yes  
Number of Species: 900+ 
Images: Drawings 5000+ 
Range Maps: Yes
Devices: iOS
Cost: Yes    14.99

Audubon Bird Guide to North America

Elise: “ The Audubon Guide includes an important map showing where birds winter in the Southern Hemisphere."

Best For: Moderate to Advanced Skill
Interactive: Yes
Song Identification: Yes
Number of Species: 800+ 
Images: Photos 3000+ 
Maps: Yes
Devices: iOS & Android
Cost: FREE

Sibley’s Birds of North America

Elise: “Sibley offers large and easy to see illustrations of each species in different phases throughout the year.”

Best For: Moderate to Advanced Skill
Interactive: Yes
Song Identification: Yes
Number of Species: 800+
Images: Drawings 6600+
Range Maps: Yes
Devices: iOS & Android
Cost: Yes   19.99

A special note about Sibley’s Birds of North America: Birds use slightly different songs in different areas and times, Sibley offers numerous song recordings for each bird.  

Following the Migrating Warblers this Spring?

There is a book and an app for that!  

Winner of the Winner of a 2014 National Outdoor Book Award in Nature Guidebooks, The Warbler Guide features over 1,000 stunning color photos, detailed species identification guides from multiple viewing angles, and a revolutionary new system of vocalization analysis that helps you distinguish songs and calls.

"[The Warbler Guide] is an incredible app for warblers. Even has 3-D capability so you can compare two species at any angle. Excellent maps," says Elise. Based on the revolutionary book by the same name, the app includes the entire range of warbler songs, which can be compared and filtered.

Available for Android and iOS for $12.99, The Warbler Guide app can be purchased on iTunes, the Google Play, or directly from Princeton University Press.

Kids & Birds? Are We Crazy? 

OK, so the best tools for successful birding is quiet and patience and we suggest bringing the kids? Are we crazy?

Maybe, but nature is the perfect place for innately curious kids. And studies are proving that time in nature helps kids calm down, can raise IQ, and build empathy.  Giving them their own tools for exploration makes nature even more fascinating. 

Start BIG With Kids

Backyards are always a good place to begin. Or start BIG. Take a day trip to see bald eagles soar or falcons dive. The arial dynamics of these amazing raptors is awesome enough to grab the attention of even the most video-addicted kid. Turn a day in nature into a treasure hunt and the treasure is hiding in the trees, on the ground, in the water, or soaring, gliding, and diving through the air. 

National Geographic Kids. Bird Guide of North America

This book provides a great overview of what shares a child's own world. There are backyard birds, city birds, shore birds and more including birds of both eastern and western United States. These sections incite curiosity about what natural treasures other regions have to explore. 

Along with identification, the book delves into fun projects such as building a bird’s nest, feeder, or bird bath, and creates introduces environmental responsibility with, “6 Things You Can Do to Help Birds” 

The age range suggested is 4th to 6th grade, but this is a good family starter for even younger kids.


The Young Birders Guide to Bird’s of North America (Peterson Field Guides)  

Suggested for young adults 6th grade and up. This is a comprehensive but not overwhelming bird guide created with the help of author Bill Thompson’s own children and their elementary school classmates. It features 300 of North America’s most common birds, fun facts, range maps, habitats, behaviors and more. A check list is included. 


Don’t Lose That Bird!  Start a Bird Life List

Even if you never go “bird watching” you will be amazed at how many different species you can spot in the course of your day by just becoming aware. Birds are all around us and many have adapted even to city life. From peregrine falcons nesting on skyscrappers to tiny jewel-like warblers in city parks to blue jays in the backyard, birds are everywhere.

The Sibley Birder's Life List & Field Diary will keep a list of all the birds you have identified in one place. You will be amazed at how fast the list grows.

Note for families: This is a great activity for the entire family - whether done as a team or individually. Adding to a bird list speaks to a child's natural competitiveness, builds confidence, encourages physical activity, and brings awareness of nature and science into our kid's daily lives.

Treat yourself or your kids to a bird identification tool today and prepare to be amazed at who has been living in your neighborhood unnoticed!   

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