Recommended Bird Field Guides for the 7 Continents
Field Guides to the Neotropics: what to take into the field
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Birds of Mexico and northern Central America (Steve N.G. Howell and Sophie Webb). Though this book is almost twenty years old, it still stands up as the best guide to the region. It has good color plates, range maps and descriptions. It covers the Northern Central American region of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador.
The Birds of Costa Rica (Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean). Second edition (2014) now available! This is the most recent guide to the country, and it is good. There are quality illustrations and range maps. Although there are a few omissions, this is overall the best field guide to the country.
The Birds of Panama (George R. Angehr and Robert Dean). Many of the same illustrations are used as in the book above, with a similar range map style and text. We definitely recommend this as the best book for Panama.
Birds of the West Indies (Herbert Raffaele et. al.). This finely-illustrated field guide to the entire Caribbean is excellent and covers all the species within the region. Not all are illustrated with range maps, though (when they are endemic to one particular island) but as a whole this is a very good guide with good descriptions. This field guide covers Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and all the islands of the Lesser Antilles.
Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba (Garrido and Kirkconnell) is the only guide covering this endemic-laden island. It’s a medium-quality field guide but virtually a “must-buy” if visiting Cuba (although the previous book can also work).
Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti (Latta et al.) is an excellent guide, covering all the species of the island of Hispaniola. All the plates are together, with following species accounts, which include range maps.
Birds of Trinidad and Tobago (Kenefick, Restall and Hayes). This is the best field guide to these islands, covering all birds occurring there. It contains clear, concise descriptions and particularly helpful ‘similar species’ information and plumage variations, but no range maps.
Birds of South America Non-Passerines (Erize, Mata and Rumboll) covers the entire continent’s non-passerine birds. It is essentially an illustrated checklist, but the artwork is very good. Each species is described with several plumages, some vocal notes, and a range map. Though not very detailed, it does cover nearly 1300 species, and together with the Ridgely and Tudor Passerines of South America you have coverage of over 3000 species! Thus, together with the volume below you’ll be able to cover all the species of South America, especially where other guides either fail to include the entire range or not do so very well.
Songbirds of South America (Ridgely and Tudor). This field guide covers over 2,000 passerine birds in South America, with over 1500 excellent illustrations by Guy Tudor. The volume contains updated range maps and illustrations. Paired with the above guide you have coverage of all the species in South America in two portable field guides.
However, since there are more than 3000 species on this spectacularly bird-rich continent, we certainly recommend one of the country/region specific books below so as to be less overwhelmed!
Birds of Northern South America (Restall, Rodner and Lentino). This two volume set covers Colombia, Ecuador, Northern Peru, Northern Brazil, Venezuela, Guyana, and French Guyana. A huge 2308 species are covered in this guide, which describes 22% of the world’s species! Very good illustrations and the accompanying text cover many subspecies as well as differing plumages. The “problem” with birding trips to South America is that one does get overwhelmed by the sheer number of bird species!
A Guide to the Birds of Colombia (Brown and Hilty). Though this is a bit dated now and has black and white plates for certain groups (!), the information, range maps, and artwork are still some of the best for this country. It is a bit heavy for a field guide (in fact, some birders have been known to tear out the plates and take just them into the field, leaving the rest in the vehicle!). But when you are talking about 1800+ species (the highest bird species count for any country on earth, slightly higher even than Peru), one either has to cut back on information and artwork size, or produce a heavier book. We think the heavier book with more information is the way to go! Eduardo, the head of our South American office (who guides a lot of our bird tours to Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, etc.) points out that this book is actually the original book for ornithologists and birders studying neo-tropical birds as a whole – it’s one of the pioneering South American birding classics. Of course, two decades ago we did not have field guides available for many South American countries, despite it being the richest continent for birds on the planet, meaning the Colombia book was the only one available. The artist, Guy Tudor, is one of the best bird illustrators out there.
Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia (McMullen and Donegan). This, the new Colombia book, has positives (updated text, up to date distribution maps, text together with the illustrations, more compact size, etc.). Some of the illustrations are not the best, but neither is it good to have black and white paintings as per the classic (previous) guide.
The Birds of Ecuador, Field Guide (Ridgely and Greenfield). This is another hefty field guide, but again, dealing with 1600+ species isn’t an easy task. There is a second volume which provides more detailed information about each species, but the field guide is all you’ll need if you join a birding tour to Ecuador. The artwork is good, though all the plates are in the center of the book à la old-school field guides. The text is very informative and the range maps are very good. This book seriously needs an update, though (it was published in 2000).
Birds of Peru, revised and updated edition (Schulenberg et. al.). The most complete and up to date guide to the birds of Peru. Considering it has over 1800 species, this book is still easily portable. The artwork isn’t too crammed and is very good, but not particularly crisp. The range maps are of reasonable size and show each region of Peru, and the text is concise but not very detailed, given the small amount of space available. Any larger, though, and this volume would require a Sherpa because of the sheer volume of information that could be included, so it presents an admirable effort to keep it compact yet still comprehensively cover the country.
Birds of Venezuela (Hilty). This most complete and authoritative work has excellent plates, thorough information, and good range maps. It is also arguably the best guide for Guyana, which does not have its own guide (although the Birds of Northern South America shown above also works well).
A Field Guide to the Birds of Brazil (van Perlo). This is the most current and complete guide to the species of Brazil. It’s a medium-caliber guide: Brazil, strangely, has never had an absolutely top-class guide but this one suffices – until this recent book was published, the bird field guide situation in Brazil was really bad.
Birds of Brazil: The Pantanal & Cerrado of Central Brazil (Gwynne, Ridgely, et. al.). Must be the best guide if you’re doing a birding trip just to these parts of this massive country.
Birds of Chile (Jaramillo). Excellent artwork, range maps and descriptions make this book a must for Chile.
Birds of Southern South America and Antarctica (La Pena and Rumboll). The classic book for the southern parts of this bird-rich continent.
Lesser Roadrunner is a Northern Central American endemic we photographed here in Honduras (Carlos Sanchez and James Adams)
And one final thought – our Peru birding guide, Eduardo, reckons the top South American field guides are the following three: Peru, Chile and the Pantanal/Cerrado (listed above).