As an avid birder, I tend to believe that one cannot have too many bird field guides, so I'm always happy to welcome a new one to my overburdened bookshelves. In that spirit, I was very excited to receive my copy of The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America last week.
The first thing that one notices about this new field guide is its cover which features the beautiful Painted Bunting on the front, surely one of the most colorful and striking birds on our continent. On the back is another, smaller, picture of a Pileated Woodpecker, the largest woodpecker known for certain to still exist in North America, and one of the more impressive birds to fill our skies.
Then you pick the book up and the next thing you notice is that this is one heavy book! It weighs slightly more than three pounds. It's all those pictures, for this is a field guide that uses photographs to illustrate the bird species of North America. It features 854 species of birds, including all the residents and regular migrants and many of the accidental visitors to the continent. There are 3400 photographs of birds, each species shown in all of its significant plumages.
I think you get the idea. This is a BIG book. It is 5.5 x 8.5 inches and has 816 information-packed pages. And this is my only real objection to the book as a "field guide": I think it is just too big, heavy and unwieldy for the average backyard birder to carry into the field when looking for birds.
Donald and Lillian Stokes made the critical decision early on to include all the birds in one volume rather than dividing it into two volumes of eastern species and western species as, for example, David Sibley did. Sibley, in fact, first published one big volume with all the birds in 2000, but then three years later came out with the two volumes, which are smaller, lighter and more easily carried into the field.
Including all the birds in one volume is a valid approach and has some advantages. One big advantage would be that when eastern birds wander west or western birds wander east, as birds will do, you can more easily find them in your one volume, rather than switching back and forth. And, of course, if you are taking a cross-country birding trip, it is useful to only have to take one volume. However, I think that, rather than a "field" guide, I am more likely to use this book as a back-up reference book. I'll continue to take the smaller Sibley into the field with me, but when I get back to the car, I'll look the bird up in this book and compare what I've seen to what appears there.
An added feature of the book which may prove useful especially to beginning birders and to those who enjoy birding by ear is that it comes with a CD with over 600 sounds of 150 common birds.
There is, in short, much to recommend this gorgeous book, especially if you are a birder who prefers a photographic field guide rather than one with drawings. If the weight of the book doesn't bother you, this may be the guide for you. And if the weight does bother you, it can still be a valuable back-up reference for you, as it will be for me.
(Full disclosure: I was sent a free copy of this book by the publisher for purposes of this review.)