Book Review: The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America

The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America, by Bill Thompson III, Houghton Mifflin Company (www.hmhbooks.com), 2012, 368 pages, $15.95.

With the publication of The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America, Peterson’s Field Guides has added yet another title to their growing list of natural history guides targeting budding naturalists. But this is no beginners guide to birdwatching; it is a beginner’s birdwatching guide. Unlike Peterson’s Young Naturalists Guide SeriesFirst Guides Series, and Field Guide Color-In Series, author Bill Thompson III has designed this stand-alone guide with his children in mind – for fifth graders, by fifth graders. Given it’s target audience, the guide is indeed easy enough for young birders to navigate. Handing it to my 1st-grader son, for example, he easily picked out the (California) quail, (tundra) swan, (Canada) goose, and (belted) kingfisher in a matter of seconds, just a few of the species he’s become familiar with from day trips and nature books.

Comparing Thompson’s The Young Birder’s Guide… side-by-side to Peterson’s now-outdated A Field Guide to Western Birds (1990), the discerning reader can see that the core material in each species account is fundamentally the same. Sure, Peterson may describe the western scrub jay’s vocalizations as a rasping “kwesh… kwesh….” in contrast to what Thompson describes as a harsh “kressh… kressh…“, but the prevailing difference between the guides is presentation.

In The Young Birder’s Guide…, each page – clearly labeled with the species’ common and Latin names together with a representative color photo – is devoted to one of over 300 North American birds and includes an informative species profile describing field marks, bird song, habitat preferences and seasonal distribution; a b/w sketch illustrating characteristic behaviors; a range map; ID tips; and fun facts. The photographs and illustrator Julie Zickefoose’s playful sketches are high-quality, while the range maps are industry-standard issue. Compared to the typical “which-one-was-it?” clutter of so many look-alike birds flocked on an illustrated plate sandwiched against a facing page of lifeless text, The Young Birder’s Guide… is instead linear, concise, predictable, practical, and most importantly, kid-friendly.

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