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Stokes Field Guides

I remember the first time I tried to use a field guide to look up a bird. A flock of little brown birds with yellow on the tops of their heads were having a party in the cracked corn in my chicken coop.

Outside the coop, my new bird book in hand, I tried to find a picture that matched the visitors. I started on the first page. Loons, swimming on a lake. Nope, my visitors weren't loons. They were not on the second page, either.

Pretty soon I sat down, and I kept paging through the book. On nearly the last page I found them: golden-crowned sparrows. Success at last, but the birds would have been in the next state by then, if it hadn't been for the chicken feed.

I would have found them a lot faster with a Stokes Field Guide to Birds. I would have looked at the "Quick Guide to the Most Common Birds" at the front of the book. Seven pages of pictures show the 40 most-likely-to-be-seen birds. And even though I would not have found that very sparrow, I would have found a bird that was similar, and I'd have seen where else in the book to continue my search. I could have skipped the loons and 300 pages of birds that weren't even close.

Of the numerous field guides to North American birds, the new Stokes' guide is clearly the best one for beginning birders. Donald and Lillian Stokes have gone farther than anyone else to make a complex body of information accessible to the newcomer.

The book is intuitively organized, one page per bird, with the name of the bird in big bold letters at the top. Under the name are one or more excellent color photographs, chosen to reveal the identifying characteristics, or field marks, of the bird. A map shows where in North America the bird is found, at what time of year. A short paragraph describes the bird, emphasizing in boldface its main field marks. There are also short text segments on the bird's feeding, nesting, habitat, and song, and whether its numbers are increasing or decreasing.

Another strength of the Stokes field guide is the descriptions of behavior, powerful information for identifying birds. Behavior is often more visible than field marks such as color and pattern, and it takes you beyond the superficial, into a deeper understanding of the bird. Yet behavior often gets short shrift in other field guides.

The book teaches you about major bird groups. For six groups, such as sparrows, or hawks, a concise introduction (called "Learning Pages") points out the main characteristics of the group and depicts the commonest species. These pages are a great help when a birder is first trying to get a handle on a confusing family of birds.

After watching birds for a little while, you'll find you know the bird groups. You may not know the specific name of a little brown bird that pops up onto the fence, but at least you know it's a sparrow. Then you can use the color tab index of the field guide to quickly look up the bird. The first page lists 24 major groups of birds, color-keyed to the appropriate pages in the book. With a flick of your thumb, you can turn to the sparrows, the hawks or whatever you need.

The Stokes field guide's clear presentation and easy access makes it the best book for beginners. And the unique information on behavior, nesting, and population status make it a valuable addition to the experienced birder's bookshelf as well.

-- Diane Porter


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