BOOKS: National Geographic Complete Birds of North America

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2006:

National Geographic Complete Birds of North America
Companion to the Natl. Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
664 pages, hardcover, illustrated. $35.00.

National Geographic Field Guide to Birds –Washington & Oregon
271 pages, paperback, illustrated. $14.95.

Both edited by Jonathan Alderfer
National Geographic Society * 1145 17th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036


National Geographic Complete Birds of North America “is too
large to be a field guide,” opens editor Jonathan Alderfer, “so
what is it? We envision it residing on bookshelves and car seats,
ready to be consulted when a field guide doesn’t provide enough
As if to ensure that Complete Birds will be used, Alderfer
also edits regional field guides, exemplified by the National
Geographic Field Guide to Birds, Washington & Oregon edition, which
sure enough probably do not contain enough information to satisfy
most serious observers.

The field guides are, however, the most compact of the
dozens here at ANIMAL PEOPLE, and contain some of the best bird
photos of the species included, the 125 species that one is most
likely to see. Omitted are the head-scratchers that most often send
a semi-experienced birder to the book shelves, as well as occasional
species like the snowy owl that normally stay to the north but
sometimes irrupt in the Puget Sound area.
Alderfer and colleagues in Complete Birds provide descriptive
detail about 962 bird species who may be seen in North America,
including immigrants. The emphasis of
Complete Birds is on distinguishing lookalike species–for example,
hairy, downy, black-backed, and three-toed woodpeckers, who not
only look much alike but share overlapping range. Only the hairy and
downy woodpeckers make the Field Guide to Birds, Washington & Oregon
Unfortunately, making full use of Complete Birds will require taking
good photographs, since birds will almost always take wing in much
less time than is required to check their features against the book.
This is also, in fairness, the major drawback of field
guides. I tend to find all such manuals most useful the second time
I see a species, after learning the first time what exactly to look
for. The first time, I have to settle for “maybe I saw it,”
because I didn’t yet know enough to seek the specific details that
would confirm that it was X instead of Y.
A somewhat unique virtue of Complete Birds is that it does
not discriminate against non-native species. While many field guides
omit them, including the Field Guide to Birds, Washington & Oregon
edition, or seem to take the attitude that seeing a bird in the
“wrong” habitat doesn’t fully count as a sighting, Alderfer et al
recognize that no matter where a bird is, one may have questions
about it, and note in some instances that feral immigrants are doing
better in North America than in the parts of the world they come from.
One six-page section covers 16 different species of parrots
and parakeets that may turn up in various parts of the U.S., along
with the Carolina parakeet, officially extinct since 1918 but often
enthusiastically “rediscovered” by inexperienced birders who happen
on some of the lookalike ferals.
At least two of these lookalike parrot species are feral in
the Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia corridor.

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