Birding Birds

First Impressions of the First Edition of Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

I went to the book launch of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America yesterday (pictured on the left) and I was struck by a couple of design decisions that I think are a bit peculiar. While my caveat emptor is that I spent about 5 minutes leafing through it, two one deficits jumped out at me immediately:

The first is size. The book has grown and now is more in line with the original Sibley’s guide (the website has the book dimensions listed as 6×9 inches). For me, a book of this size no longer becomes a field guide–a book that can easily slip into a coat pocket and is forgettable as you carry it around–it becomes a desk reference. Yet, right there on the cover is the fact that this is supposed to be a field guide. Sibley’s guide as a desk reference is “worth it” in my opinion, because the extra space is used to describe and illustrate a wider variety of colour morphs seen across North America. In the new Peterson guide, the bigger pages are filled with larger illustrations. I don’t know if this is a demographic decision (Houghton Mifflin: “Birders are getting old. We need to make the bird illustrations bigger so they can see them easily”), but I was somewhat surprised that the new edition is essentially an old Peterson Field Guide “super-sized.”

Second, range maps are in the back of the book. Another bone-headed move on the design front. Having to flip around a book to try and find if what I think I’m seeing should actually be where I’m seeing it is extra effort. This is actually a step backwards for the Peterson guides because in the most recent edition of the Eastern guide (and I have to assume Western, too) there are range maps right on the same page as the plates. All the “current-generation” bird books that I own have range maps right with species descriptions and plates. The only reason why I can think the move was made has to do with the size of the maps: they’re much larger then they would have been if they were to have been included with the text. Personally, a small map never was much of a limiting factor when using a guide.

Update (09-11-08): As per the first comment below, it would seem that I managed to miss the inclusion of range maps beside the species descriptions. So, it would appear that you get flip-free small range maps and the larger range maps in the back.

This guide is supposed to assume the mantle of the new edition of Peterson bird guides. I suspect that Houghton Mifflin will, à la Sibley Guide to Birds, publish more compact regional versions (previous Peterson guides covered Eastern and Western North America) of this guide sometime in the future. It’s an interesting plan because while this worked for the Sibley guides, I’m not so sure it will work again in the case of Peterson. My resoning is this: at some point people don’t need another field guide. There was enough value-added in The Sibley Guide to Birds to warrant having both a desk reference and a field guide. I don’t see any extra value in owning the first edition of the North American Peterson and a field-guide size regional version too. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this edition.