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Bird Guides for beginners - comprehensive vs limited coverage (1 Viewer)

John Cantelo

Well-known member
I've been discussing elsewhere which is an ideal bird guide for novice birders in the UK, a guide showing the core c300 (or more) UK species (in a good variety of plumages & poses) or one that limits itself to 150-200 species with fewer 'less confusing illustrations'.

I've never been very convinced by the argument that more options = greater confusion since I'd contend fewer options = more confusion. I believe it undersells the capacity of most people to learn. It ignores that it's when a bird/plumage isn't well covered (if at all), beginners are likely to make more mistakes by adopting a 'best fit' approach. Similarly, I believe most people are capable of intelligent reflection when they digest the fact that the bird that they think they've seen is rare or extremely unlikely.

I'd regard the 'simple' guide that sparked the debate which covers only 150 birds (largely in only 1-2 photos) and omits notorious pitfalls like Ruff (yet includes Black Woodpecker & other continental species) as worse than useless. Such a 'simple' approach also ignores that, with the advent of bird information services/internet, it's often easier for new birders to see rare or very unusual birds such guides do not cover than regular but scarce ones which they do (as these birds tend not to be reported).

It's a long time, though, since I was a beginner. So when you were a beginner (or perhaps you still are) did you find more comprehensive books confusing or were you more led astray by the confusingly simple?
 

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
I can't speak for all guides, but I have often noticed that the more "complete" the species coverage, the more complete the coverage of plumages, distribution, etc is. If a guide only has 150 species, but say, only one or two gull plumage, it's going to cause confusion.

I think accuracy, currency, and completeness of information is more important for newer birders than necessarily limiting coverage.
 

leonardo_simon

Well-known member
When I started I found that having a 'simple guide' (RSPB pocket guide to British Birds) very useful, and complimented the bigger books (Collins Guide) very well.

Most of the time the birds we see are common so the book was very useful & I would recommend a beginner starts with something that's appropriate for the part of the world that they live in.

For example, I've never seen a bird in my garden that's not in the RSPB pocket guide --- & that's where many people start

I don't use that book much now but it really helped me start.
 
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dantheman

Bah humbug
It's a good question. I'm sure I mentioned it the other day, but I'm sure when the 'new Collins' first came out (or the 2nd ed) we had a discussion on here along the lines 'a slimmer version of the Collins without all the peripheral European/WP species would be great'

ie same level of detail/plumages/intellectual interest but without the extreme rares or sedentary species. Idea never happened, or is there a different guide which goes there?

There's a lot of other good stuff out there. The Larousse Guide was once thought to be good, and there was the Mitchell Beazely, also those 'birds by character' Or was it Jizz? A4 RSPB guide???
 

leonardo_simon

Well-known member
Personally, when I was starting, I didn't notice subtleties that I notice now. So levels of detail / plumages would have been lost on me & the basic RSPB pocket guide had more than enough detail.
 

njlarsen

Gallery Moderator
Opus Editor
Supporter
Barbados
When i started in Denmark I was very happy that I had the full Europe book which at that time probably covered around 550 species. I would have been upset with a less complete book that would not have given me an answer to all species I could see.

Through about 30 years I ended up having seen about 300 species within Denmark including some pretty rare ones, and a good deal more in the rest of Europe.

Niels
 

John Cantelo

Well-known member
Personally, when I was starting, I didn't notice subtleties that I notice now. So levels of detail / plumages would have been lost on me & the basic RSPB pocket guide had more than enough detail.

Alternatively, a book that does show subtleties of plumage might help people develop their skills more quickly.
 

jurek

Well-known member
It is surprising how many common ID pitfalls for beginners are not or poorly addressed in bird guidebooks. Examples I can think of:
- Urban Duck = domestic x wild Mallard cross
- moulting dark male Ruff - Spotted Redshank
- Common Gull - Herring Gull (vs. all these Ring-billed, Yellow-legged etc.)
- Summer-plumaged immature gulls of all species
- female Goldeneye vs Ferruginous Duck on water or Vervet Scoter in flight.
- hybrid geese, esp. Barnacle x Canada
- regularly escaping wildfowl, hawks, parrots etc. Here North American Sibley guide is much more pragmatic. In fact, species like Harris Hawk or Red-shouldered Teal are far more often seen by birders in the Western Palearctic than many native marginal species.
- juveniles of many songbirds, which are strikingly different. For example juv. Rock Bunting, juv. Bluethroat or juv. Wheatear.
- juv. Robin vs juv. Nightingale
- small juv. Pheasant before its tail grows
- female-plumaged Reed Bunting is never described by itself, a sum of features excluding a dozen vagrant buntings
- weirder forms of feral pigeon
- Great Spotted Woodpecker with incomplete keck bars and GS x Syrian hybrids
- White Stork vs Crane against the light
- how a waterbird stained by oil looks like

I must have answered a dozen times what is Mallard x domestic duck cross, but I yet not had anybody wondering about a possible Baikal Teal.
 
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Nutcracker

Stop Brexit!
It is surprising how many common ID pitfalls for beginners are not or poorly addressed in bird guidebooks. Examples I can think of:
....
Definitely!


And also specifically for the 2009/2010 edition of the Collins Guide, consigning most Category C species to an appendix (where nobody is going to look!), even for widespread, abundant, and highly conspicuous species like Rose-ringed Parakeet and Mandarin Duck.
 

njlarsen

Gallery Moderator
Opus Editor
Supporter
Barbados
I agree things like that should be included where it otherwise makes sense (Mandarin Duck with other ducks makes one example) like it was in my first field guide in the 70ties (if anyone were in doubt I was getting up there).

Niels
 

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
- regularly escaping wildfowl, hawks, parrots etc. Here North American Sibley guide is much more pragmatic. In fact, species like Harris Hawk or Red-shouldered Teal are far more often seen by birders in the Western Palearctic than many native marginal species.

Yep, Sibley is the best guide for this, and actually tries to keep somewhat abreast of introductions. I think that was the first guide that for instance clued me in on the introduced Red-vented Bulbuls in Houston Texas. I can't speak for European guides, but I think the issue is a lot of folks are very reluctant to incorporate exotics and introduced species, because they feel it "legitimizes" there presence. Even though the average person is far more likely to run into one of those types of bird and suffer confusion than some obscure out of range Phylloscopus...
 

opisska

Jan Ebr
Poland
My first bird guide was Svensson (Collins) and I am very happy to have chosen it. I really hate having someone else decide what information I should have access to - in all sorts of endeavours, I always opt for the full picture if possible, even when it is "complicated". For example during my studies, I have seen some teachers who try to hide subtleties from their students by "warping the reality" to make it less complex for the sake of a "learning curvE". I consider that not acceptable - when I teach, I obviously also only teach selected material, but I am not trying to make arguments and proofs that don't hold water, instead I openly admit that something is too complex to go into, or outright unsolved and that we are just discussing the results.

I also agree that the exclusion of introduced birds is silly, even Collins is guilty of that and it should be changed in any future edition.
 

Swissboy

Sempach, Switzerland
Supporter
Switzerland
………….
I also agree that the exclusion of introduced birds is silly, even Collins is guilty of that and it should be changed in any future edition.

I fully agree. It's all these introduced species that will not go away simply by ignoring them in our FGs. Rather, we should be able to identify those as well, with the clear designation that they are introduced.

As for complexity, I was lucky enough that when I started birding over 60 years ago, the first edition of the European "Peterson" had just come out in our German language. And it was a major source of letting us young ornithologists dream about species that were seemingly out of reach. What an exciting time! And it still keeps having impacts such as providing great memories when one of those then "out of reach" species finally makes it to one's life list.
 

jurek

Well-known member
Coming back to the original question:
I would welcome a bird guidebook with more details of common birds. I wouldn't mind rarities dumped in separate sections (like Collins guide does with waders) or in a second volume. Many missing information about common birds is found in the Helm/McMillan Guide to Bird Identification, which, ironically, was designed for finding rarities.

However, I think the whole formula of a field guidebook is now about to change. It was originally meant as a lightweight booklet carried in a pocket, with serious limitations on size. Now most birders use cars and/or smartphones and have no space limitations. I carry around Collins, Sibley and The Birds of the Middle East apps, complete set of sounds, a photo folder with tracks and signs of birds. I could easily also carry Helm specialist guide, Olsen & Larsson gull book and a huge gallery of photos, too, if they were easily available.

Just for completeness: some more common bird pitfalls in Europe, which are far more relevant than rarities:
juv Dunnock
variability of non-adult male Ruff, especially vs Redshank and Spotted Redshank
variability of female-plumaged Reed Bunting, including very pale birds with lots of straw-yellow
variability of juv Dunlin, especially pale ones approaching Curlew Sandpiper
Id of Glaucous Gull when wingtips are not visible. Very common in scanning a gull roost with 100s of birds obscuring each other.
Id of female-plumaged Shoveler when the head is invisible. Very common when it upends. Of course, feeding underwater for very long periods is a good id clue by itself. Here Sibley bird guide has a good cue.
Id of female ducks and juv waders when they sleep with wings and heads not visible
Eclipse and moulting males of ducks
Variability of f Mallard, including ones that have grey bill.
 

Nutcracker

Stop Brexit!
Leucistic Carrion Crows (and I gather also American Crows?) with a pale / white wingbar - very common, particularly in urban areas (apparently related to dietary deficiencies of urban junk food) so much seen. But not illustrated . . .

White domesticated Greylag Geese, and 'Canalag' Geese (Greylag x Canada hybrid)
 

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