National Geographic "Field Guide to
the Birds of North America" 6th edition.

by Jon L. Dunn & Jonathan Alderfer, with Maps by Paul Lehman

The latest edition of this excellent field guide arrived yesterday and I thought I'd share my first impressions.

This is a major revision, unlike a few of the past revisions. The cover says "All 990 species, including 23 new species; 300 new art pieces, new quick-find visual index, subspecies and migration maps, found only in this field guide."

Most of the 23 new species are treated briefly, with only a single painting in the appendix of "Accidentals and Extinct Species." which now comprises 17 pages vs. 13 pages in the 5th edition. At least one species (Eskimo Curlew) was moved from the main part of the book to this section, although the Ivory-billed Woodpecker remains in the main section.

The 300 new art pieces are scattered throughout with some plates entirely new, but with many rearranged with new art inserted for some species but not others.

The new quick-find visual index is on the inside covers. It consists of small images of one species from each family keyed to the page numbers where the family is treated in the text. This replaces the detailed bird topography and map of North America which were included there in the 5th edition. The bird topography images are moved to the introduction and replace the old "Parts of a Bird" from the 5th. The old map of North America seems to be gone.

The subspecies and migration maps consist of two parts. All of the maps have been redone to show distribution during migration. The familiar red, blue and purple shading is still there for breeding, winter and permanent distribution, but added are pale green for spring migration, pale yellow for fall migration and orange for migration during both spring and fall. These migration distributions are on all the maps and are big improvement over past editions. Dashed lines are used for irregular distribution in all colors and black lines separate named subspecies with dashed lines for approximate subspecies boundaries.

Not all named subspecies are mapped. For example the Horned Lark now has its own plate with various subspecies illustrated, but the accompanying map does not show their ranges. Likewise Common Yellowthroat does not have any subspecies on its map. On the other hand all three races of Chestnut-backed Chickadee are mapped even though only two are illustrated.

An additional set of maps is included in the back of the book showing detailed subspecies ranges for 37 selected species. However neither the Horned Lark nor the Common Yellowthroat are included there. Within the 37 species with special maps, attempts are made to map both breeding and wintering ranges of each subspecies. For some species such as Fox Sparrows, the subspecies are organized into groups and summer and winter ranges are on separate maps. Presumably putting it all on one map would be extremely confusing.

The claims that subspecies and migration maps are found only in this field guide is not really true. E.g. the old Golden Guide had migration maps with cross hatching for spring and fall and even included isobars showing arrival dates across North America for many migratory species.

When I first opened the book and started flipping through the plates, the most noticeable difference is that each plate now has fine text next to each bird emphasizing key field marks. In a few cases, lines are included pointing to these features, but in most the text is simply placed nearby without any arrows or lines.

The new art work is contributed by Jonathan Alderfer, Killian Mullarney, David Quinn, John Schmitt, and Thomas Schultz. These are all talented bird artists with keen knowledge of field identification.

It's well beyond the scope of this first impression to discuss all the new art, but for example, the plate with Semipalmated, Western and Least Sandpipers is unchanged except for the addition of a female Semipalmated Sandpiper in breeding plumage showing its longer bill. The original plate was done by J. C. Pitcher, but the new female Semipalmated Sandpiper is by Tom Schultz. The two artists have different styles and I think it shows here and on a number of other plates in which different artists contributed different birds. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether some of the differences are artistic or whether they are intended to be actual field marks. Also some of the images appear to have been printed a bit too dark in my copy. That said, the new artwork is a clear improvement.

There are lots of similar improvements throughout this edition. The text for all species now follows a standard format and it is much easier to find the information one wants.

Some of the species have been rearranged in homage to recent changes in the AOU checklist. Some of these I think were probably unnecessary. E.g. I don't think placing the longspurs and Snow Bunting between pipits and warblers will make them easy to find in the book. I probably would have left them with the sparrows with which they are most likely to be confused.

I have used this book in the classroom since the very first edition in 1983 and it just gets better and better. This new version is still compact enough to be carried in a large pocket. It is slightly thicker than the 5th edition having 574 pages (72 more) than the 5th. I look forward to using this new edition as the standard text for my classes.

--Joseph Morlan