Review: The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America

i Nov 16, 2010 No Comments by

By Nathan Swick, Wake Audubon Board Member

It goes without saying that birders in North America have a wealth of choices when it comes to field guides.  So many other places with well established birding cultures have a single guide that is considered to be the one to have.  Europe’s Collins guide or Australia’s Simpson and Day are good examples.  But on our continent we are nearly overwhelmed with choices.  In fact, you could probably argue that the greatest example of the unrestrained free market, the ultimate manifestation of good old American capitalism,  lies on the book shelves of your local bird store.

If you like illustrations, there are field guides for you.  If you prefer photos, you’re still in luck.  Expert or beginner?  Rarity codes?  Arrows?  Birds in flight?  Multiple plumages?  Juveniles? Subspecies? Any combination of the above? You’re likely to find a field guide that will adequately meet your needs.  Split the continent in half?  Even more options.  This means that while birders will likely find it easy to pick a field guide, or if you’re anything like me, a series of field guides, that works for them, it can be exceedingly difficult for field guide authors and publishers to break new ground in what is an increasingly crowded marketplace.

The newest guide from Don and Lillian Stokes, The Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America, comes into this yawning anti-void taking the more is more approach, promising to be the most comprehensive photographic guide ever published.  There’s little to argue with on that count, because by any objective measure the Stokeses have succeeded in creating a field guide that meets or exceeds that lofty standard.  Most field guides, simply to be considered worthy of the moniker, have to make certain concessions; unusual plumages are left out, range-restricted subspecies are removed, and vagrants given short-shrift, but the Stokeses made the executive decision to do none of that.  Birds are shown in every plumage you may or may not observe, at multiple angles, with particularly difficult identification issues given more room rather than less (Gulls are particularly well-represented).  Every subspecies is mentioned, if not pictured, regardless of relevancy to field identification.  And vagrants, even exceptionally rare ones, are pictured in all their glory, sometimes multiple times.   This, then, is a guide that leaves absolutely nothing out.

The success of a field guide stands or falls with the quality of its photos (or illustrations if that’s what floats your boat) and, like so many of the photo guides coming out these days, the ones picked to flesh out this guide are stunning, many of them from Lillian Stokes own extensive collection, and laid out to great effect.  Connoisseurs of bird photography may recognize the names of luminaries like Brian Small, Kevin Karlson and Richard Crossley (whose own photo field guide comes out next year) among others filling in the gaps and North Carolina birders will be happy to see our own Brian Patteson’s work well-represented in the seabird section.  Several of the photos are identical to those from Ted Floyd’s recent Smithsonian Guide, a testimony more to the difficulty of obtaining images of several species rather than anything intentional, but there’s surprisingly little overlap given the massive quantity of photos that made it into the book, a testimony to the explosion of field guide quality images in the wake of the digital photography revolution.  In an additional echo of the Smithsonian guide, Stokes have included location and date information in the corner of every photograph, an nice little touch that helps birders to begin to understand the basics of molt and practically essential for a guide that features as many photos as this one.  There’s no reason future photo guides should omit this particular feature ever again.

In an attempt to cover all possible bases, the text is perhaps more extensive that it needs to be.  As such, it’s small, packed into the space provided and filled with abbreviations that read a bit too much like a Pyle guide, more or less like checklists of important field marks rather than descriptions of the bird’s gestalt that would be useful for a beginning birder. This is not too much of a bother given the fact that the text is intended to play second fiddle to the photos, but it’s potentially a concern once you start trying to piece together a difficult ID.  That said, the inclusion of all described subspecies and known hybrids is an excellent touch, even if it may not be more than trivial knowledge to the majority of the book’s intended audience.  It is, however, an example of how a bias towards including more information rather than less is useful.  Even with all this specific information, the lack of general introductions to bird families at the beginning of each section was noted (the introductions are scattered throughout the section), and was, in my opinion, a missed opportunity to focus on the broad view in a text that can feel a bit obsessed with minutia at times.

Such thoroughness and attention to detail isn’t free, however.  The cost is paid in size.  This book is big, there’s no getting around it.  Unless future editions split east and west asunder this is hardly the type of book anyone is going to take into the field.  That’s not a knock, as Sibley’s masterwork is hardly field-worthy either, but begs the question of how much is too much when it comes to field guides.  The Stokeses have taken the medium about as far as it can go in a single volume, including just about everything that any birder would want, and that’s great.  But for the birder that needs something to take in the field to identify what they see right then and there, we may have reached perfection with the original Peterson’s (once it went full-color and got the maps in the right places, of course) and everything else is just gilding the lily.  Who knows, though. We’ll likely see no stop to new field guides coming down the pike in the immediate future, and as we learn more about birds the impulse to put more in our hands will increase.  There’s nothing inherently wrong about that, and in fact, I’m one who generally believes that more is better when it comes to information, but birders in North America will have to figure out what works for them.  Fortunately, they have no shortage of opportunities to do so.

As for this particular book, it’s definitely something to check out, and at $25 (going as low as $17 on Amazon) there’s really no reason not to have it on your shelf.  Because regardless of how accurate the term “field guide” is, the Stokeses have truly put together a beautiful and comprehensive book.

Thanks to Little, Brown and Company for sending me a review copy.

Cross posted at The Drinking Bird