Intro Field Guide

Brad Schram

Hi All:

Continuing the discussion started by my question about local introductory
birding classes:

In mid-December I got an e-mail from Kenn Kaufman making semi-public a
project he told me he was working on--a new N American guide for beginning
birders. I recently touched base with Kenn and asked if it was now public
knowledge to be shared and was told it is.

I stripped off some introductory comments and copy the body of the text
below. It sounds like a great resource for beginners and beginning birding


[Kenn's remarks, sent to some friends in December, below]

Yes, I'm working on a field guide. A guide to all birds, all of North
America. But birders I've told so far have jumped to the same conclusion:
this book should be big, advanced, cutting-edge, filled with new details,
pushing the limits of identifying subspecies and rarities. There seems to
be a universal perception that all field guides should strive for that.
Actually, I'm going the opposite direction. This note is to explain some of
my rationale in advance.

Here's my starting point. Say I have some friends who are sharp,
intelligent, curious people, and they've decided to try birding... but on
their own, not going with organized trips. What field guide do I recommend
to them?

Well -- at the moment, there isn't a good one to recommend. The
Petersons come closest, but they're drifting out of date, and the separation
of plates and maps is irksome. The Golden Guide is out of date, and
problems with its illustrations are well known. We all know that photo
guides, the way they've been done in the past, aren't effective for
identification. The National Geographic is great for experts, but it is
very clearly and pointedly not meant for new birders. And I'm looking
forward to the Sibley guide as much as anyone, but at two volumes and eight
or nine hundred pages, it won't be something for casual birders to toss in
the daypack.

For my friends who are just getting into birds, there is not a good guide
to recommend. So I'm working on such a book now. (There are good people
working with me on it, too, but I'm the one who will take the blame for
anything wrong with it, hence the first-person tone of this note.)

To get started on the book, I had to make basic decisions. Fortunately,
in the nine years since my Advanced Birding was published, I've spent loads
of time talking to casual or beginning birders, so I had a basis for
deciding questions like these:

---- Should the book include only common birds? My answer is, No.
Everything that occurs regularly has to be there. Even a total beginner
will wonder, "Could it be something else?"

---- Should the book include extreme rarities? Generally, no. Particularly
not Attu specialties; anyone who goes vagrant-hunting in Alaska will go with
experienced leaders or will carry more heavy-duty references. Ditto for
very rare pelagics; no one sees those on their own. Ditto for those that
are very hard to identify; inexperienced birders should not even be thinking
about Little Stints -- only a minority of birders have even worked out the
differences between Leasts and Semis. The more extreme rarities are
included, the more likely people are to be confused or to misidentify what
they see.

---- Should the book be arranged in the latest AOU sequence? Not when it
means that similar species won't be close together. The purpose of a guide,
obviously, is not to teach checklist order (which will change again anyway);
it's to allow people to put names on birds.

---- Should the book show subtle differences among subspecies? Yes if these
affect the identification to species; otherwise, no. You and I may care
about the race of a Spotted Towhee, but 99.9 per cent of birdwatchers are
happy to get it to species. Some recent books make people think they can
identify birds to subspecies in cases where they really can't.

---- Should the book show subtle age and gender differences? Again, only if
the differences are noticeable enough to make people wonder about the
species identification. Some recent books make people think they can
identify birds to age and sex in cases where they really can't.

With these points in mind, I'm working on a field guide that's intended
to be complete but compact, highly accurate without being overwhelmingly
detailed, with thorough attention to the basics and with the attitude that
these birds are all exciting and worth seeing.

I already know that some experts (especially those who deal with the
public) will welcome a high-quality, entry-level guide. But some will
insist that every beginner should start with an advanced field guide. I
think that idea is based on a false perception of the typical beginner. The
typical beginner is not Claudia Wilds on her first Chincoteague survey, or
Steve Howell on his first Mexico trip. And I'm certainly not talking about
kids, like some of these amazing kid birders in ABA today. A youngster who
gets into it, with all that time and energy, may build their skill and
knowledge very rapidly -- it's misleading to think of them as "beginners."

No, the typical beginner -- the one who makes up 99.9 per cent of the
bird watching public -- has other interests besides birds, and other demands
on his/her time, and will never be able to devote a lot of time to
developing their skill. The typical beginner will never become an expert,
AND THERE IS NO REASON WHY THEY SHOULD. The purpose of a standard field
guide should NOT be to turn beginners into experts, but rather to help
people enjoy birding.

Why do I care so much about beginning / casual birders? Simple answer.
Bird habitats face monumental threats. Birds and nature need all the
friends they can get. Someone who's totally thrilled by their first Yellow
Warbler today may vote in favor of habitat protection tomorrow. Anyone who
cares about conservation should want birding to be as open and welcoming
and inclusive as possible. We need to cater to the entry level, the first
step -- not insist that everyone should learn to swim by being dumped into
the deep end of the pool.

So that's my new focus. It's coming along well. I'm already resigned to
the inevitable: some short-sighted hotshots will write blistering reviews
of my new field guide merely because it's not intended for experts. (Fair
is fair -- I did the same thing to Roger when his revised eastern guide came
out two decades ago.) But regardless, I wanted to let you know what I was
working on before the news gets out to the general birding public.

Kenn Kaufman

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