I've had versions of R.T, Peterson's Field Guides ever since high school. I've actually watched birds my entire life from the day my mom told me I could catch a bird if I put salt on its tail and she caught me running out of the house with the salt shaker, chasing after a blackbird. (I'm not making this up.) This book is one of my key tools I use to convert friends and family into bird-o-maniacs. I begin with the provocative remark "Did you know I've recorded over 40 species of birds in our suburban back yard," then I take them out to watch birds at a national preserve nearby. Works every time. I love the drawings because they give you the average or highlighted characteristic feature of the species. Photos can obscure, although sometimes they are indispensible to make a tough identification. The new edition has a wonderful feature: the range maps are now WITH the bird species and not in the back. Hooray! Range is critical to bird identification--if you think you are seeing a Western Jay and you are in Delaware, well, maybe it is an accidental but probably you saw some other kind of bird. The notes on songs help you identify that unseen bird, and the description of habits is essential. I suggest if you have kids, that you get a reasonable pair of binoculars, this Field Guide and a set of index cards, a scrap book, a weblog or just use the life-checklist in the book. Have the kids note the species they see, when and where they see them. Soon they will have a fascinating list of what's in their own backyard and you will have something wonderful to do together.
When starting this hobby, there are an immense number of guides and (often expensive) resources to choose from. This book should be the first one you buy (well, if you are in the eastern half of the US). But it should not be the last. The Peterson Guide uses drawings (important -- NOT photos) to show you the typical features of the birds around you. Other great guides -- like the Audubon series -- use photos, but photos are harder for a beginner to use for a sure-fire identification. Or this beginner anyway... No bird in the field looks exactly like the lovely Peterson drawing, but no two bird photos are ever alike, either (even of the same bird). Use the Peterson to get to know the bird species around you, and maybe next buy a guide like the Audubon Society Field Guide (just because -- I dunno, they seem like a one-two punch to me)! It's great to go looking with both, but if I had to choose one, it would be Peterson. To learn more about birding in general, Sibley has a nice, shortish overview book called "Sibley's Birding Basics." I'm only getting started, but this is some advice about what's helped in beginning to learn all this wonderful stuff about the living world all 'round.
This is a very good field guide, I've owned it for several years. The illustrations are usually accurate enough to make quick identification. There are times, though, that this is not the case. Recently I had a difficult time identifying a particular bird because what I saw versus what was drawn and the accompanying map were not all in total alignment. However, this book is still far and away the best field guide I've come across. It is easy to use, organized into logical sections, and is as complete as most birdes would ever need. Some of the technical descriptions are cumbersome, namely trying to describe sounds with words, but this is not a major problem. This guide should remain the standard for years to come. The reader just needs to be aware that varaitions may likely occur in what they see on paper compared to what they see in the field.
I may have finally found a relacement for my old Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds. My new Peterson guide -- BIRDS OF EASTERN AND CENTRAL NORTH AMERICA -- arrived today and is it beautiful. Best of all, it has a flexible cover and is light enough to carry into the field. I have dozens of bird books, but this little guide is by far the best for field work. In addition to it's apparently waterproof and flexible cover, and being just the right size for a backpack (you can even carry it in your hand comfortably--no small feat for my arthritic hands), the new guide includes those nifty little arrows Peterson has used forever. The arrows, size specifications, and placement of maps on the same page as the species, allow the bird watcher to immediately locate and identify distingishing characteristics. The Peterson guide does not contain as much detail as the SIBLEY GUIDE, or the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA, or the SMITHSONIAN HANDBOOK - BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA, but the Peterson guide is detailed enough for field work and much lighter. If you are a serious bird watcher you will want to buy all four books, but if you can only afford one or don't want to invest in all four, the PETERSON GUIDE is still the best bet. And, I still think the Peterson guide is the best one to use with kids. The National Geographic guide includes some wonderfully modeled bird specimens with incredible detail that could only be produced digitally. The Peterson illustrations are hand painted and thus not as detailed. Although other books may show more detail, the question is -- will you really need all the detail in the field? Generally, you have only a few seconds to identify a bird. Peterson's arrow markers and the alternating sections of white and light bluish-grey backgrounds make it easier for me to flip around the book quickly. The SMITHSONIAN GUIDE is fully loaded and very heavy. Each bird occupies a single page, and the guide provides a nice "rule-of-thumb" feature that allows you to gauge the bird's size by the book size. I use my Smithsonian guide for follow-up work after a trek in the field -- and in my own back yard. Apparently, the Peterson folks have considered the effects of global warming as the winter and summer ranges of the birds have been extended. I now have five kinds of wrens visiting my small back yard in Arlington VA. And, when I travel to Wisconsin in a week or so, I can use the Peterson guide because it extends west to Minnesota.
This is the last Field Guide done by the great Roger Tory Peterson before his passing in 1996. Most of the plates have been reworked and many redrawn. He was working on the last plate (on Flycatchers) the day he died. This remains probably the best Field guide for beginner to intermediate birders in the eastern US (and Canada). The illustrations and the helpfull arrows (the "Peterson System") pointing out essential ID points. His verbal descriptions often bring the birds to life, such as his now famous decriptions of Sanderlings and Swifts, and the verbal descriptions of bird songs and calls remain the best of any guide. This remains one of my favourtie Field Guides and is often the one that accompanies me out in the field. The National Geographic Guide may be a slightly more suitable choice for the advanced birder, though birders of all levels would be delighted with this guide. A welcome change in this edition is the addition of small "thumbnail" maps on the opposite page to the illustration thus removing one of the main criticisms of previous editions. The larger maps remain in the back, still done by Mrs Peterson with help form Paul Lehman. One negative is the slight increase in size (the pages are a little bigger) making the book slightly less pocketable. Overall an excellent Field guide, which while not reaching the exaltred heights recently set by Mullarney et al in their superb European guide, is the final effort by the man who essentially started it all.
The 5th edition of Peterson's field guide is an improvement over previous edtions. The maps are included in the front with the birds now, in addtion to having a separate more detailed map in the back of the guide. These range maps are the best of all current guides because the details are easiest to see because their so big. Sibly's is great also but because of it's size(the guide itself) I wouldn't recommend it for the field, more as a reference for back home. So if your going to own just one field guide the 5th edtion Peterson's is the best all around guide out there.