The recent publication of The Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East, by Hermann Heinzel, Richard Fitter and John Parslow (reviewed on pages 445-448), has met with a wide range of reactions, both favourable and unfavourable. This mixed reception that now seems to greet the appearance of any new field guide is due partly to a common misconception that the purpose of these volumes is 'to enable anybody who is interested in birds to identify any bird he or she is reasonably likely to see . . .' (to quote from the intro duction to one field guide). If this purpose were achieved, the field guides published to date would be directly comparable and we could say that one displaced another, or at least that this applied to certain parts of them. But they are explicitly only guides, not keys, to field identification; it is better to buy and use all of them and to discover their particular strengths and weaknesses the hard way. Perhaps the public is more likely to buy a book which claims to enable every bird to be identified, but if so it is being misled by a gross over simplification. Identification is a highly complex physical and mental process, in volving the observer's field skills and experience, the intrinsic degree of difficulty within the group of species in question, the circum stances of the encounter, and the instruments, books and other aids available. The process is often complete; it can
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