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Boost Your Bird-Watching with National Geographic's 'Complete Birds of North America'

National Geographic Complete Birds of North America

When you spot a bird in flight or perched on a fence row and you simply can't rest until you know what kind of bird it is, what family it belongs to, where it ranges and how it sounds, then you, my fine-feathered friend, may be a birder. And this encyclopedic bird guide may be just the thing for your bird-watching pleasure.

At 700+ pages, the National Geographic Complete Birds of North America probably isn't something you'll schlep around with you on a camping trip, and, arguably, an app might be more useful in the field. (The smaller, lighter-weight National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America would be easier for schlepping.) Still this big book is a large delight. I spent an afternoon dreamily thumbing through it as I did when I was a kid, sitting in my room surrounded by encyclopedias. I had no particular destination, and I certainly enjoyed the journey.

This second edition is a fully revised and updated version of National Geographic's most popular birding guide, with fascinating, detailed information on more than 1,000 species of birds. Edited by best-selling birding author and field-guide illustrator Jonathan Alderfer, the book is a comprehensive reference that covers all North American wild bird species, as well as a variety of exotic species that are already becoming established or simply frequently visiting our climes.

More than 4,000 annotated illustrations by expert bird artists fill its pages, along with color photos and updated range and migration maps. More than 800 maps can be found in this edition, showing range, routes and historical data.

My one complaint is with the index, which required a bit of frustrating detective work on a couple of species. It seems intuitive that, if I want to read about the Tennessee Warbler, for example, somewhere in the index I might locate it under "Tennessee" or "Warblers." I did find it (see below), but only after thumbing through several pages on "Warblers."

If you have a birder on your holiday gift list, this might be precisely the thing to delight and inspire them. It is available on the National Geographic website as well as other retail outlets.

By the way, if you want a way to identify birdsong when you're out in the field, some dandy apps can be had for not too much money. The Nature Conservancy has rated several, and the comments on their blog provide additional feedback. I like iBird Pro, designed for iPhone or iPad, which has been around for years, and friends who have Android phones have recommended the Peterson's app.

Here are some illustrations to give a sense of the visual detail and bird-y personality found in National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, Second Edition. Many illustrations are new to this edition and replace those in the first edition.

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler
Illustration by H. Douglas Pratt

This diminutive but full-throated singer nests on the ground at the base of small shrubs or trees, loves to eat spruce budworms and can be found in forests and bogs. Adults are less than 5 inches long, but those tiny wings take them from Southern Mexico and Panama up to the Great Lakes area and even into Canada. If that doesn't make you feel better about taking a walk today, what will?

Mallard Ducks (Anas Platyrhynchos)

Mallard Ducks
Illustration by Cynthia J. House

When I say, "Duck," you'll probably see "Mallard." The most widely recognized (and widely distributed) duck in North America, mallards can be found throughout most of Canada and the United States (other than Hawaii). The male have a distinctive, flirty flip of feathers at the tip of their tails, and both sexes feature distinctive bright blue speculum feathers that telegraph, "I am a mallard and don't you forget it!"

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

Barn Swallows
Illustration by David Quinn

This beautiful, ubiquitous bird is familiar throughout North America. Their striking blue crown and back contrasted with the rich dark-cream to rusty-brown under-parts look designed by someone paying close attention to a color chart. Though their cup-sized mud nests can be an annoyance when they're plastered to your barn, they're a lovely bird to watch as they kite across the skies.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Northern Cardinal
Illustration by Diane Pierce

These spiky-headed singers are found in gardens, thickets, woods and backyards throughout the eastern part of the U.S. and Mexico. The male's vibrant plumage makes him an especially welcome backyard bird, along with his mate, who is more discreetly decked out in her subtle buff and brown motif. 

Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator)

Pine Grosbeak
Illustration by Diane Pierce

This plump little finch is a "true" finch, unlike those phony waxbills and buntings that often are mistaken for finches. It's sort of the pug of the bird kingdom, with a stubby, curved bill that can make quick work of the seeds, buds, berries and bugs that form its diet.

Cover and all illustrations courtesy National Geographic Complete Birds of America, 2nd Edition

K.C. Compton is senior editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publications, The Herb Companion and GRIT. She grew up in rural Oklahoma where watching wildlife was called "childhood." Find her on .