Field Guide to Birds (Western Region) by D. & L. Stokes

Review by Lynda La Rocca

Wildlife – October 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Stokes Field Guide to Birds (Western Region)
by Donald and Lillian Stokes
Published in 1996 by Little, Brown and Company
ISBN 0-316-81810-0

Did you know that the Greater Roadrunner can pursue its prey of insects, mice, snakes, spiders and lizards at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour? Or that a 10-inch-long Surfbird will fly directly into the face of intruders like caribou to protect its nest?

These are just some of the fascinating facts included in the Stokes Field Guide To Birds (Western Region), a well-organized, clearly written field guide designed for birders of all levels, from the novice to the experienced.

The latest in a series of bird and nature guides written by this husband and wife team, the Western Region covers the western half of the United States from the Great Plains to the Pacific coast, including much of Alaska, along with all of western Canada and northern Mexico.

A short introductory section describes what the authors call “three-dimensional birding,” which emphasizes the need to go beyond simple bird identification to an understanding of behavior, habitat, and conservation.

“Bird watchers . . . are among the dedicated people actually observing the natural world closely,” the authors write. “The 21st century needs bird watchers who can accurately identify a bird, who know its needs for survival and reproduction, and who are aware of its population status.”

Toward that end, the guide includes conservation information from the Breeding Bird Survey, conducted by the National Biological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service, the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, and Hawkwatch International. At a glance, birders can check the population status of each of the nearly 500 species included in the guide.

Beginning birders will find useful the seven-page “Quick Guide to the Most Common Birds,” while novice and intermediate birders will appreciate the 14 “Learning Pages” containing tips on how to identify hawks in flight, warblers, flycatchers, and several other difficult-to-identify groups which often confuse even experienced birders. (Just ask this one!)

Also helpful to birders in the field, which is where guides like this belong, is an alphabetized index on the inside front and back covers designed for rapid scanning. Somewhat less helpful is the color tab index, which theoretically enables birders to turn immediately to the section of the guide they need for a quick identification. I have a problem with this “labor-saving device,” however. If, for instance, you turn to the color tab section marked “Tanagers, Grosbeaks, Buntings” to confirm a sighting of a Pine or an Evening Grosbeak, you won’t find either–because they’re listed under the color tab marked “Finches.” In many cases, the plain, old, back-of-the-book index gets you to your bird faster, as does using the guide so often that you simply memorize the general page location for most birds.

I’m also dissatisfied with the maps, which indicate summer, winter and year-round range for each species, but fail to take into account migration patterns. Thus, birds I have seen more than once in the Upper Arkansas Valley, including Wood Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, American White Pelicans and Common Loons, are all shown as not occurring in Colorado at all. While these maps are quite useful as general indicators of species occurrence, they’re not gospel. After all, the birds don’t read the guides; they don’t know they’re not expected to show up in certain areas.

This guide’s best feature is its close-up, finely-detailed photographs–more than 900 in all. While good illustrated guides are an invaluable aid to birders in the field, nothing beats a clear photograph for clinching an identification. For instance, the photo in the Stokes’ guide recently helped me identify a dark-morph adult Swainson’s Hawk. Normally, I would have had to page through several illustrated guides to determine what kind of hawk was perched on the fence behind our home.

Stokes Field Guide to Birds (Western Region) is well worth the $16.95 price tag. It will prove a valuable addition to any birder’s library.

–Lynda La Rocca