people pointing at a book
An ode fo field guides, everywhere. Photo © Karine Aigner / TNC

My 5-year-old son burst through the front door. He excitedly told me he had just seen a “green snake” that had “kind of freaked him out.” Then he reached on the shelf for a reptile field guide. As he opened the well-worn book, I saw the inscription inside the front cover: a note from my grandparents for my 10th birthday.

We’re a field guide family.

Field guides have been a part of my life since I was a small child. The crisp illustrations of these guides have helped me identify countless species, from birds to chipmunks to snakes. But they’ve also served as invitations to adventures, as memories of days afield, even as a source of solace when I can’t be outside.

Naturalist Ken Keffer, in his recent book Earth Almanac , writes “You don’t have to be able to identify anything in nature to enjoy it. Just being outside in the fresh air can be relaxing.”

This is certainly true. Many of my friends, hard-core outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists, have little interest in identifying warblers or dragonflies. They live for scenic vistas or seeing the big and unmistakable critters like wolves or elk. They enjoy challenging themselves in the wilderness. They might photograph a patch of wildflowers but scarcely give the species names of those flowers a second thought. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.

But for me and many others (including you?), identifying plants, animals and natural phenomena is a big part of our outdoor enjoyment. As such, field guides are an essential component of our day pack and library. And how modern field guides originated is an interesting story in itself.

Photo © Morgan Heim/Day’s Edge Productions

A Bird in the Hand

Naming and classifying our world is a universal preoccupation of our species. In fact, the earliest myths across cultures often detail how things got their names. There are practical reasons for this, but our obsession with naming and listing also became the basis for popular nature hobbies.

In Victorian Europe, for instance, collecting natural objects was an obsession across economic classes. Enthusiasts collected and displayed butterflies, bird eggs, fossils and more. Identification, if not simple, was fairly straightforward as the specimen was right in front of you. For a long time, a key tool in bird identification was the shotgun. A bird in the hand could be readily identified. (Or painted. John James Audubon and others often shot birds before beginning their artwork). As wildlife populations plummeted, collecting birds and bird eggs became unsustainable and socially unacceptable hobbies. In the United States at the turn of the 20th century, attention turned to conservation and new regulations protected many bird species. At the same time, bird clubs like the Audubon Society began popping around the country.

More people realized that you didn’t need a firearm to appreciate birds. Unfortunately, identifying species in the field remained tricky. There were guides, but many of these were detailed scientific keys, requiring a level of taxonomic knowledge that most amateur naturalists didn’t possess. Plus, these books were weighty tomes, impractical to lug around on a hike.

binoculars and field guide
A birder’s best friends. Photo © Karine Aigner / TNC

The Game Changer

Enter Roger Tory Peterson, a young artist who also happened to be obsessed by birds. In 1933, Peterson convinced Houghton Mifflin to publish a Field Guide to the Birds as a new way to identify our feathered friends. Rather than a detailed text key, Peterson used clear, crisp illustrations. Those illustrations emphasized distinguishing characteristics of bird species, with small arrows indicating key identification points. As Peterson noted, “My identification system is visual rather than phylogenetic; it uses shape, pattern, and field marks in a comparative way.”

The guide featured very concise text, and could be easily carried in the field, or placed by a window for identifying backyard birds.

Houghton Mifflin had modest hopes for the new title, publishing 2,000 copies in its first print run. It famously sold out in the first week. It has not been out of print since then, and has sold more than 7 million copies, one of the bestselling nature books of all time. As the Roger Tory Peterson Institute notes, “From 1934 on, thanks to Roger’s genius for simplification and communication, any amateur could learn to distinguish one bird from another. Birdwatching soon became a hobby—even a sport—for vast numbers of people.”

Instead of collecting bird specimens, as naturalists once did, people could now collect sightings.

That initial Peterson guide spawned a multitude of other field guides, not just for birds but for almost any other creature we might encounter afield. The Peterson Field Guide series alone now includes 52 titles. David Sibley’s guide, which added new ways to distinguish birds, was published in 2000 and became a New York Times bestseller.

Field guides have become as indispensable to naturalists as binoculars.

Photo © NPS & Kurt Moses / Wikimedia Commons

Start of an Obsession

As a child, dreams of exotic beasts filled my dreams, fueled by picture books and shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (I realize I’m dating myself). I wanted to walk among the elephants and jaguars and polar bears. The Golden Guides, the first field guides I owned, were for me not for identification, but an invitation to adventure. With these guides, I realized that I did not have to wait for a safari to explore. There was plenty of excitement in the vacant field behind my home. Favorites like Pond Life included most of the creatures I could encounter at the local creek, and also featured information on techniques like dip-netting, and suggestions for do-it-yourself “field research” projects. The Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks opened my eyes to another aspect to the natural world. The wild animals I didn’t see still left signs of their passing. A fresh snow revealed numerous critters that passed during the night. I tracked red foxes through woodlands, and stoped to identify mystery scat left by the streamside.
Photo © Justine E. Hausheer

Field guides continue to add new dimensions to my outdoor pursuits. For many years, I was a pretty standard-issue trout angler. I might pause to identify a bird fluttering over the stream, but I didn’t think about identifying all the fish. Sure, I valued freshwater biodiversity, but I am embarrassed to admit I didn’t know much about it.

That changed when I received the Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes, a book that revealed I had shortchanged my fishing by overlooking so many species. I began to seek out new species wherever I went. Today, if I’m on a fishing trip, you can bet a field guide is in my tackle bag. Today, my bookshelves bulge with field guides. I have them for big international trips I’ve done, and I have guides covering places I’d like to someday visit. I have field guides for Western squirrels, for Wisconsin stream life, for the frogs of Costa Rica and for non-native hoofed mammals of Texas. The variety is astonishing…and great new field guides continue to be produced.
Photo © Justine E. Hausheer

The Fun and Solace of Field Guides

No, you certainly don’t need a field guide to enjoy the outdoors. But I guarantee that learning to identify the creatures around you will add new enjoyment, whether you enjoy wilderness hiking, hunting, cross-country skiing or backyard gardening.

With so many field guides, how do you choose? You might have specific kinds of wildlife that is just inherently more interesting. Perhaps you want to know more about dragonflies or fungi. I love mammals and fish, but I’ll reluctantly suggest this: Start with birds.

There’s a reason why the field guide that changed things was for birds, and that the bestsellers remain devoted the avian world. Birds are highly visible and abundant. A good field guide won’t solve every identification challenge, but you’ll figure out most of the birds you see at your feeder or on a hiking trip.

A lot of birds are diurnal. They can be colorful. They are often loud. While warblers or gulls may be frustrating, it’s nothing compared to identifying a bat on the wing or minnows in the water. Start with birds, but don’t be surprised if your first field guide leads to more.

Start with birds, but don’t be surprised if your first field guide leads to more.

Identifying nature is fun, but what I love most about field guides is that the change the way you see. As you develop field skills, some ducks will take off in low light and you’ll know they’re gadwalls. Not mallard, not widgeons. Gadwalls. You’ll know this because your eyes automatically pick up the cues you learned in that field guide.

The meadow you once just walked through will suddenly become a dramatic spectacle. Alive. You will stop and silently catalogue the creatures you know from previous sightings: Columbia ground squirrel, long-billed curlew, Cooper’s hawk. But what is that butterfly? Is that a swallow or a swift? Back to the field guides.
Some field guides that you won’t want to leave behind. Photo © Matt Miller/TNC

Of course, the latest revolution in field guides are apps and online resources. Now you can report your sighting, and have experts verify your ID. And what was once simply a hand-written “tick” in your book is now a data point for citizen science efforts.

Still, I love a field guide in my hands, and the page after page of nature illustrations. During this time of quarantine, I admit that paging through my collection is therapeutic. I find myself reliving past trips, and also dreaming up new trips and what species I might expect to find.

And when a snake crosses the trail, I’m happy that my son rushes back to look it up. Naming the thing that crosses the path – and hopefully leading to a life of nature exploration and enjoyment.