Birds of North America, A Guide to Field Identification: Revised and Updated. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.
Overall, the Golden Guide to the Birds of North America is well designed. The small size and the flexibility of the book make it very portable. The comparison images scattered throughout are quite useful for a beginner like me. Many of the songbird pages, for instance, show the silhouettes of different kinds of birds, which is helpful for determining whether I’m looking in the right section of the book. The two-page spread of “Fall Warblers” presents all the warblers together, separating those without wing-bars from those with. The written account of each species focuses on describing the bird’s appearance. Other than a general note about where and when you might see a species (the catbird is “common near dense cover,” for instance), the book doesn’t pay much attention to behavior or habitat. When I am out looking at birds, I enjoy watching them do what they do as I like the intellectual puzzle of identifying them, so I prefer a guidebook that provides more information about a bird's typical behavior or its ecological niche.
In general, I enjoy guides with paintings, such this one, more than guides with photographs. (However, I also really like Ken Kaufman’s book, which has photoshopped pictures, and I hope to post a review of that book soon.) For me, a painting is easier to use as a reference image because the artist has already extracted the most salient features of the bird’s image. Many of Arthur Singer’s paintings are attractive full-page compositions. Some are also extremely charming; my favorite is the woodpecker illustration on page 201 that shows five species of bird clinging to the same tree trunk.
Unfortunately, Birds of North America seems to be badly printed, and reviews on Amazon indicate that it’s not just my copy. Overall the images have too little contrast and the colors are not saturated enough; many of the pictures have a greyish tone and are slightly blurry. The range maps are especially difficult to use. The oceans and the Great Lakes are printed in such a pale grey that they are hardly visible, making it really hard to figure out the ranges of birds that don’t have a coastal distribution.
Sonagrams, which illustrate a bird’s song by plotting time against pitch, are one of the Golden Guide’s unique features. Because I’m not good at recognizing bird songs, I thought this aspect of the guidebook was useless until recently. However, I read on a suggestion on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website that might make them more valuable to me. They recommend looking at a sonogram while listening to the bird’s song in order to hear more details in the song. Paying more attention the song in this way might help me learn it better, so I think I’ll try this in the spring.