The Young Birder’s Guide: A Bird Book for the Middle Schooler

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Bill Thompson’s Young Birder’s Guide
The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (Peterson Field Guides) is a book that I highly recommend for kids around seven to 14 years of age. (The publishers suggest a narrower age range but I respectfully disagree.)This is a new offering written by Bill Thompson III and published by the same people who give us the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds and many other fine titles. The book includes excellent illustrations by Julie Zickefoose.
A birder since childhood, Thompson says he would have loved a book like this one when he was just getting interested in birds. Now a father of two, he spent many hours over a two-year period with his now eleven-year-old daughter’s class getting their advice on what to include in the book.Bill Thompson III is the editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, a bimonthly magazine with 70,000 subscribers and the author of Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges. He lives with his wife, author and illustrator Julie Zickefoose and their two children on eighty birdy acres in Ohio.

Let me tell you what I think about this book.As an identification guide, it is pretty good. It uses a one bird per page layout, which means fewer birds per book, but lots of information on them. Although you can get a fair amount of info from a Peterson guide, this book gives more yet remains useful as a field reference. Each bird has a “wow” fact associated with it, highlighting something that we presume a kid around this age would find interesting. A random example:

Herring Gulls sometimes carry large shellfish such as mussels, clams, and oysters in the air and drop them onto a hard surface in order to break them open and eat them.

The info page for each bird has a very good distribution map, and the photos (there are often two, one per sex) are supplemented with black and white line drawings.it is slightly disturbing that the loon is not listed as the first bird, but I can get over that.Perhaps the most useful part of this book is the pre-ID guide material, the stuff in the beginning that gives advice for how to watch birds. All Petrides/Peterson guides have a section in the beginning that is oriented towards the beginner, and this is in some ways just another example of this. But it is better than average, more detailed, repeats some of the important stuff in a couple of different formats, and is oriented towards kids in that pre-tween/tween/early teen age group.Sit still. Stop fidgeting, you are scaring the birds away. Don’t start looking up the bird until after it flies away. The birds have wings and will use them. The book does not have wings. Really, put the book away until after the bird is gone. And stop fidgeting, please.You get the idea. The book does a good job of telling the young birdwatchers how to ease into the birdwatching culture, tells them about bi-nocks, bird counts, cats, the whole nine yards.Most importantly, the book encourages the kids to look at the birds, and gives advice on how to see the birds and the key features that help identify them.i-d3aa7e1ca6de110db8da456878e4c1ec-Phoebe.jpg

Phoebe Thompson demonstrating the birder’s stance and birder’s gear. Notice that Phoebe is looking at the bird, and not fiddling with the book.
All field guides have advice on gear. This field guide goes one step further, much to the chagrin of Phoebe Thompson, daughter of the author, who was forced to don her best bird watching outfit to pose for the obligatory shot of the bird watcher in full regalia. Reproduced here. Sorry Phoebe, but the picture is just too cute to not spread all over the internet. Don’t worry, the friends who abandon you because of this photo were not really your friends.People often say, “if you have to have only one bird book, then…” I say this is a really really dumb thing to say (though I’ve said it myself). If you are into birds at all, you are going to have a few books. One of them will be the standard Peterson Guide, and then you’ll have a few others. If you have a kid anywhere near the indicated age range, this book should be one of them.Oh, and I have some excellent news for you. Most bird guides are a bit pricey new. This one is cheap. It is not badly made .. in fact it is pretty well bound and printed on nice paper, etc. But it lists for 14.95, and I think the link above will get you to a cheaper price, closer to 10 bucks. Not bad. Perfect gift for a 10 year old who’s birthday is in late spring or early summer. Maybe your niece.What’s bad about the book? Not much, but there are a couple of things missing that I would like to see in the next edition.First, all field guides need that little 6 inch ruler printed on the cover. No one has ever used this ruler, but it has to be there for the world to not seem all topsy turvy.Second, it might be nice to have bleeds showing the taxonomic sections from the edge of the book. A lot of field guides don’t do that, but they all should. (A bleed is ink that goes to the end so you can see it at the edge of the page.)Third, and most importantly, I like the one-pagers that are often found in guides. Like the one page comparing all the hawks in flight, scaled to each other. I think people use these less often than they should, but they are very useful.These are minor shortcomings, or perhaps they are actually brilliant editorial decisions or decisions made to keep the price down (which is good). These issues do not translate into any reservations on my part on buying this book. Just go get the book. You will be happy. Even more important, your 7-14 year old daughter, son, niece, or nephew will be happy.

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10 Responses to The Young Birder’s Guide: A Bird Book for the Middle Schooler

  1. Coturnix says:

    Hmmm, how am I going to write my review now that you said it all? I agree 100%.

  2. JanieBelle says:

    Hmmm… I own a Peterson’s and an Audubon. Sounds like I’ll be adding this book despite the recommended age range.And of course, until someone figures out how to add sound files to a field book (maybe iPod recordings would work instead… there’s an idea…), a good back-up for confirmation once you’re home is the Cornell Ornithology Bird Guide.

  3. Mbwah! That is a big wet Baby Huey kiss for a very nice review of this book. Phoebe is going to cack when she sees herself on your blog. And not in a nice way. But she’ll get over it.Really, thank you so much. The review means so much more for being spontaneous and unsolicited.

  4. Greg:I am most flattered that you reviewed the Young Birder’s Guide! Thanks for all the kind words and especially for the suggested changes and additions. Will keep them in mind for future (fingers crossed) editions.Peace!BT3

  5. Phoebe says:

    Now that photo is on the internet, in a book, and amongst my friends…. Oh joy!Thank you so much for the great review!

  6. JanieBelle says:

    It’s a perfectly lovely photo, Phoebe. Don’t let anyone give you any crap about it.

  7. thanks for dragging your kid out into the field to look at birds, and i am jealoous that you managed to post that image of Phoebe .. did you scan it? because it certainly was not available on the internet when i was looking for blackmail material .. um, er, looking for useful images to include with my review.and actually … the loons should not be in the front because of the ornithological rearrangement of bird relationships based on recent phylogenetic developments.

  8. greg laden says:

    Yes, I scanned it. Yea, I know, but it just seems so normal for the loons to be in front.Like they were an hour ago in front of the cabin eating crayfish….Janie, there is a book that has buttons you can press and hear bird sounds. However, it is kind of global and does not have that many sounds. Peterson has quite a few CD’s now, I think a total of either four or eight, loaded with songs. And yes, the Cornell site is great for sounds (and other info).

  9. Dawn says:

    I just read your chemistry lab book review and now this? You may have an exploitable niche here, reviewing science books and materials useful to parents and homeschoolers in particular.

  10. Greg Laden says:

    Dawn: I wish! When I saw the chem book I thought … wow, this is one of my favorite publishers, maybe they’ll have a book in everything …. But they don’t, actually.