What’s the best way to learn about your local birds? One of the most common methods has traditionally been to get a book. A good bird field guide will contain illustrations or photos as well as helpful text to help you identify the birds you encounter. These days there are dozens of options – how do you choose one that will be easy to use in Marin? You are reading this column.
My guiding principle in selecting field guides is simple: choose the most locally targeted guide that meets your needs, one that matches the birds you will encounter while being uncluttered by the birds you won’t encounter. A beginner could get by just fine with a simple fold-out guide illustrating about 80 birds, while more experienced observers who typically stay in the Bay Area will find everything they need in a Northern California-focused guide that can hold 300 or 400 species. A comprehensive North American field guide can cover over 1,000 species – those birds aren’t there, so they’ll make the book more difficult to use.
Let’s move on to some specific recommendations. For a beginner-friendly guide to Bay Area songbirds, my pick is “Sibley’s Backyard Birds of Northern and Central California” by David Allen Sibley. This is a laminated fold-out guide by the best contemporary bird illustrator, with an excellent selection of species for our region. I would generally not recommend the folding guide format for a comprehensive “all birds” guide – all currently available options that claim to cover all Marin, Bay Area, or California birds omit many common local species , while including various more spectacular birds that you are very unlikely to see. A better approach is to start with the barnyard bird guide (which actually includes all the common songbirds you would also see in woods and forests), supplemented by a similar guide for waterfowl if you want to identify ducks and shorebirds. , then switch to a real book if you want to look beyond the common neighborhood birds.
If the nearly 80 species found in a folding guide doesn’t satisfy your birding aspirations, I would recommend a California or Northern California focused field guide. My top three picks in this area are “Birds of Northern California” by David Quady, Jon Dunn, Kimball Garrett, and Brian Small (a modern, comprehensive photographic guide); David Fix and Andy Bezener’s “Birds of Northern California” (an illustrated guide with nice, readable blurb on each bird for those who like more background information), or Cornell Lab’s “All About Birds California” of Ornithology (a more compact, beginner-oriented guide that still covers 218 species).
For most people, that’s a lot of bird knowledge. I think a world where everyone knows 100 birds would be spiritually richer and happier, while the returns of spotting your 507th bird are more limited. But if you want to expand your circle of avian knowledge even further, prepare to travel to neighboring states, or identify rare vagrants, then my favorite of the more comprehensive guides is David Allen Sibley’s “Sibley Birds West.”
The Complete Field Guides by Sibley and others are also available in app format, which offers the benefit of included audio recordings, but still suffers from the common pitfalls of Complete Field Guides – excessive clutter and lack of locally specific information on seasonality, habitat or habits . A particularly noteworthy app, however, is Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID, which is both free and comes with some unique features, including the ability to identify birds by photo or audio recording.
If you want to dig a little deeper into Marin’s local birds, I have another book I can recommend. Of course, it’s mine. “The Privacy of Public Birds: Learning to Listen to the Birds Where We Live” is my exploration of 15 characteristic birds of California. Each essay is a combination of natural history, first-hand observation, and poetic and cultural appreciations of familiar friends like Anna’s hummingbirds, scrub jays, and California towhi. The books above will teach you the names of Marin’s birds. This book teaches you how they live, their voices and personalities, and the richness they bring to life.
Jack Gedney’s On the Wing airs every other Monday. He is co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Novato and author of “The Private Lives of Public Birds”. You can reach him at [email protected]