Nigel Redman
Nigel Redman

Field guides are an essential identification tool for birders. Here, Nigel Redman reflects on the history and development of the genre, and examines how field guides can continue to serve birders in the future. 'No birder carries a field guide – because you don't need one, because you know what you are looking at, and, anyway, even if you don't - it's cheating. You are supposed to take notes and look it up later.' This was the advice given in Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book in 1980 to anyone who aspired to be a serious birder (as opposed to a 'dude'). It's true that most birders probably don't need to carry a field guide with them on their home patch, but all will own at least one (and probably many), and most will almost certainly need to carry one when birding abroad. To be fair, Bill Oddie does go on to praise the merits of field guides later on in the book. A field guide is, after all, an essential piece of kit for all birders at some stage in their birding careers: how else can you identify an unfamiliar bird in the field? It's easy to be complacent about them now, especially as there are field guides for every part of the world, however remote. Most are very good, a few are poor, and some are outstanding. And the standard is generally getting better and better. But it was not always like that. The 'official' history of field guides is only 80 years old. In 1934, Roger Tory Peterson published his groundbreaking A Field Guide to the Birds, which covered the birds of eastern North America, although the title did not make that clear. This is considered to be the first real field guide. It was revolutionary in its aims and layout. The birds were painted in similar poses and all facing the same way, for comparison purposes. Little pointers highlighted key features. The succinct text stripped away any unnecessary information. This was a portable guide to carry with you that would genuinely help you to identify the birds that you saw. Before this, bird books tended to be big, heavy, expensive and verbose - definitely not for carrying in the field. It didn't matter that some of Peterson's plates were in black and white (colour printing was expensive then, and presumably it seemed superfluous to print in colour birds that are essentially black and white in coloration). Perhaps more surprisingly, duller female plumages were often painted partially hidden behind the more attractive male. As we all know, it's usually much easier to identify a male, but it's also relevant that field identification of females and immatures was in its infancy then. Peterson and others continued to hide females behind males for decades after this, and it was not until the 1970s that these often crucial and more challenging plumages began to come out into the open in field guides. The first printing of Peterson's guide sold out in a week, and it has never been out of print since. Newer editions are vastly superior to the original, with repainted plates in full colour, changes in layout and even a larger format in the most recent edition. But the genre was slow to develop. Peterson followed the Eastern guide with a Western guide (1941), and then one for Britain and Europe in 1954 (in collaboration with Guy Mountfort and P. A. D. Hollom). Two years earlier, Fitter and Richardson had produced what was probably the first serious field guide for Britain and Europe, but their guide was arranged by habitat rather than taxonomically and, although well received, it ultimately failed to match the success of Peterson's guide. In the original Peterson the plates were scattered throughout the text. With regular use, you just about got used to finding them, but it was not ideal. Later editions placed all the plates together in a block in the middle. There was no doubt that this made it easier to find the illustrations, but you still had to go to a different part of the book to read the accompanying text. The 'Golden Guide', illustrated by Arthur Singer and covering the whole of North America (1966), was probably the first serious field guide to adopt the 'plates opposite text and maps' approach to its layout. Here was a comprehensive guide that had all the relevant information on a double-page spread: text and maps on the left (sometimes with key ID features highlighted) and illustrations on the right, with varying degrees of labelling on the plates or with little bits of text strategically positioned around the illustration. Of course this model necessitated compromise; the text needed to be succinct and the maps had to be small - the size of a small postage stamp. The more species that were crammed onto the page, the less information on each one and the smaller the map. But if the number of species per page was restricted to around 4-5, a useful balance could be maintained. This layout gave the Golden Guide something of an edge over Peterson, and proved to be extremely popular on both sides of the Atlantic - the Peterson guide adopted the 'plates opposite text' layout only in 1980. But both books faced a serious competitor in 1983 when the National Geographic guide first appeared. The latter went on to become the field guide of choice for a great many birders in North America, and it's still in print today in a much revised and improved edition. In 1971 Bertel Bruun and Arthur Singer followed up their successful Golden Guide with a European version, which became known as the 'Hamlyn Guide' - again named after the publishers rather than the authors. The following year, renowned natural history publishers, Collins, came up with a competitor that covered not just Europe, but also North Africa and the Middle East. This guide, popularly known as 'Heinzel, Fitter, Parslow' (after its authors for a change) allegedly went on to sell over a million copies, remaining in print well into the modern era of field guides. Both of these had plates opposite text and maps. In North America, Peterson's publishers Houghton Mifflin had embarked on a massive series of field guides covering the full range of natural history subjects, and using Peterson's name for the whole series: Peterson Field Guides. In Britain, Collins performed a similar role, predictably calling their series the Collins Field Guides. Other publishers dabbled in the genre, with varying degrees of success, but none of them posed a serious challenge to the Peterson/Collins field guide domination until a new young publishing company called Croom Helm (later becoming Christopher Helm) came along with a range of new ID guides that took bird books to new levels. By the turn of the century, Helm Field Guides had become established as the new gold standard, making the smaller-format Peterson and Collins series look somewhat outdated. Helm Field Guides combined all the best features of layout and design to generate comprehensive and authoritative guides with plates opposite text and maps, creating a series of bird field guides that would eventually cover virtually every part of the world. I may be biased, but many of the Collins field guides, even some of the more recent ones, have a distinct retro feel to them. It may be the small format, the crowded plates or the maps all together at the end, but they are not as user-friendly as the fresher-looking Helm Field Guides. With one notable exception: Collins Bird Guide. This is a superb guide, whose origins lie with the Swedish publisher Bonniers, was first published in 1999 and has been hailed by many as the best field guide ever (for any country or region in the world). More than a decade later, its second edition can still lay claim to this accolade. The North American equivalent of the Collins Bird Guide came in 2000 with the publication of The Sibley Guide to Birds (published as the North American Bird Guide in Britain). With its larger format and artwork by the author David Sibley, this guide went on to sell more than 1.5 million copies in its first edition. The Spanish publisher Lynx Edicions, who produced the acclaimed Handbook of the Birds of the World in 17 volumes, has been slow to enter the field guide market. In theory they should be able to publish field guides for every country or region in the world using their archive of illustrations of every bird species, although they would need to overcome the lack of certain plumages and races. This also raises the possibility of producing bespoke field guides, covering precisely the region that you are visiting on a birding trip, without any of the confusing species that you don't stand a chance of seeing. These could be produced on a 'print on demand' basis, as one-offs. In this article I have deliberately focused on field guides illustrated with artwork. Photographic field guides have never been as highly regarded by birders, but this is changing with the growth of digital photography, and some photographic guides have been particularly innovative. The recent Crossley ID Guides have taken this genre to a new level, although their larger format makes them better suited to the library than the field. And a German publisher, Kosmos, has produced a guide that prints QR codes on the page. With a QR app on your smartphone or tablet, you can hold your device over the code and additional text will appear on your screen with an option to play the bird's songs and calls. Similarly, a South African publisher, Briza Publications, has produced a photographic field guide that has the codes embedded in the photos themselves, making them invisible. But for this one you need a little device in the shape of a fat ballpoint pen (called a Callfinder) which you point at the picture and then it plays the song from an MP3 player in the pen. Very clever, but you'd need to carry the book and the pen - and then make sure you don't lose the pen. Where do we go next in the world of field guides? Many field guides are already available as e-books, viewable on smartphones and tablets, and some of these include bird sounds - which in itself is a major advance over those incomprehensible transcriptions of bird songs and calls that get printed in the 'Voice' sections of so many field guides (not to mention sonograms, which even fewer people understand, although these are rarely used in field guides). And then we have apps, which perform a similar function by also providing text, pictures, maps and sounds on your smartphone or tablet, but often with additional features such as photos, video, 'smart search' facilities to customise your search, or direct links to websites if you have access to the internet. A question I often ask myself is what sort of field guides will birders be using in the future? How will tomorrow's birder be accessing ID information while birding in the field? In printed books or on electronic devices? Or a combination of both? Or neither? Maybe you will need only a camera, as even a poor shot on a modern digital camera can often be zoomed in to give an image that is identifiable either in the field or back home when you have better access to the literature and the internet. Cameras are becoming today's notebooks. Digital technology is moving ahead at a breathtaking speed. Apps already exist to enable your smartphone to listen to a piece of music and identify it for you. And it's now available for birdsong too, although memory limitations mean that you can access only a small number of species so far. This will soon change, and lazy birders will never again have to learn birdsongs; all you will need is a smartphone or even a smartwatch. And what about binoculars that can record and analyse the information they 'see' in an internal microprocessor and tell you what bird you are looking at? It sounds like science fiction, but it could become a reality. It would take a lot of the fun out of birding for sure, but if it does come about one day, it would still be good to be able to check the identification in your real or virtual library of field guides. Nigel Redman  

Issue 10
Start Page: 
Display Image: 

Stay at the forefront of British birding by taking out a subscription to British Birds.

Subscribe Now