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Drawn from Nature: Art, Science, and the Study of Birds

Modern Field Guides

Expanding Markets for Field Guides

Roger Tory Peterson published a second edition of his field guide to eastern birds in 1939 and added a guide to western birds in 1941. By the time he completed a third edition to eastern birds in 1947, the competition was catching up. In 1946, Doubleday published the Audubon Land Bird Guide, followed by the Audubon Water Bird Guide in 1951 and the Audubon Western Bird Guide in 1957.

The first edition of A Field Guide to the Birds, far right, alongside famous bird books from, left to right, Alexander Wilson, John James Audubon, Elliott Coues, Robert Ridgway, Mabel Osgood Wright, and Frank Chapman. Peterson’s pocket-sized guide made it ideal for carrying in the field.

Design Innovations

In 1966, Golden Press entered the market with a field guide co-authored by Chandler Robbins and Bertel Bruun and illustrated by Arthur Singer. The Golden Guide was the first to include all North American birds (north of Mexico). The book also featured innovations, such as color-coded range maps and song diagrams, that set the standard for future guides. In recent years, artist and ornithologist David Allen Sibley has provided a new design to field guides with his 2000 publication of the Sibley Guide to Birds.

the Spotted-Breasted Thrushes page from Birds of North America featuring a variety of Spotted-Breasted Thrushes

Spotted-Breasted Thrushes page from Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification, Golden Press, New York, 1966. All illustrations were in color and included a variety of plumages and lifelike poses. A few illustrations depicted bird habits and behaviors. Note the juvenile Wood Thrush, upper left, foraging for food on the forest floor. View Source.

A New Era of Field Guides

Today, a wide variety of field guides, online resources, and mobile apps are available for all age groups and levels of experience. To birders, the field guides are known simply by the author’s or publisher’s name: Sibley, Peterson (now in its sixth edition), Kaufman, Stokes, and National Geographic are some of the more popular titles. But their history shows us that behind each title were distinct innovations that sought to better solve the problem of bird identification.

David Sibley’s first edition field guide included two birds per page, shown

David Sibley’s first edition field guide included only two birds per page. The added room allowed him to depict more plumages and poses of individual species, including birds in flight with wings raised and lowered. David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Birds, Alfred A. Knopt: New York, 2000 View Source.