Birding field guides have been getting bigger and heavier and more complicated recently, e.g., The Crossley ID Guide and Stokes Field Guide to the Birds, both of which have been previously reviewed here. Now comes a book which bucks that trend and returns to the smaller, simpler format pioneered by Roger Tory Peterson in the 1930s and 1940s.
Birds of North America and Greenland by Norman Arlott does not actually claim to be a field guide. Instead, it is billed as an "illustrated checklist" of the more than 900 species of birds which occur in the Nearctic region which spans most of North America, including Canada, and Greenland. It is a small book, 5" x 7 1/2", containing just 239 pages. It will easily fit into a birding vest pocket or a backpack and will not weigh you down, as many recent so-called "field" guides will.
The bird drawings (and he does use drawings, again bucking the popular trend toward using photographs) are very simplified affairs and include, generally, at most two views, one of the bird in breeding plumage and one in non-breeding plumage. The range maps that are included are described as "thumbnail" maps, an apt description indeed. At first, I didn't even see them! It was only when I flattened the pages out that I could see the little maps near the right-hand side of the left page, along the spine of the book. All the bird drawings are on the right-side page and the descriptions and maps are on the left page.
As noted, the book includes over 900 species, many vagrants, accidentals, and introduced species, as well as the native species. One egregious omission which I noted was the Nutmeg Mannikin, an introduced species which has established itself in some areas of the country, including Harris County, Texas. This made me wonder if there might be other omissions, but all the other species that came to mind were represented, so perhaps this was a single oversight.
I think this book's greatest usefulness will be for beginning birders in the field. It is easily handled and easily referenced. Several related species of birds are shown on each page, making ready comparisons an uncomplicated exercise. The simple bird drawings are easy for the eye to take in and, for the most part, I think, would be useful to a new birder in identifying what s/he is seeing in the field.
The range maps, on the other hand, are pretty useless, but perhaps that is of less concern to the neophyte birder than having accessible and understandable bird drawings. I would hope, though, that such a birder would have a Sibley, or a Crossley, or a Stokes, or a Kaufman, or even an old Peterson guide back home to refer to and match this illustrated checklist against when s/he returns from the field.
(An advance review copy of this book was provided free of charge by the publisher for purposes of this review. The book will go on sale to the public on November 2, 2011.)