NORTH AMERICA  = Nearctic realm

North America is so full of contrasts that it is impossible to capture anything of it, even in a montage of photos. I live in California but have visited most corners of the continent. There are so many favorite spots -- the mountains, the deserts, the sea -- that I feel at a loss in picking any of them. This is a collection of mostly well-scattered sites:

I was born, raised, and live in North America, so it is a very familiar realm to me. Many of my early years were spent traveling throughout the United States and Canada looking for "life birds", and I have seen nearly all of the breeding birds of the continent as well as numerous vagrants. It is a land of incredible contrasts and never-ending fascination. I also treat the Caribbean islands as within the Nearctic realm because, while they have some resemblance to the tropics, much of the avifauna is clearly Nearctic in origin.


The Nearctic shares many families with the Western Palearctic but has only two endemic families, both in the Caribbean:

Todidae Todies Dulidae Palmchat
Anther family is mostly Nearctic, with one turkey in the Neotropics:
Meleagrididae Turkeys

Handbook: Only five volumes of Palmer's (1962-1988) Handbook of North American Birds were published (loons through hawks), so we have nothing like the complete nine-volume set now boasted by the Western Palearctic. The Palmer series was solid in details about plumages, geographic variation, and biometrics, but was never up to speed on distribution or field identification. A. C. Bent's Life Histories series (26 vols.) provided much on behavior and breeding biology, a lot of it in anecdotal form from early pioneers in field observations; a very fine recent summary of breeding biology & behavior in a single volume is in Ehrlich et al. (1988). Today, the role of a handbook is being filled by the Birds of North America project (Poole et al. 1990 on), with details about each species being published in looseleaf fascicles or pamphlets, issued arbitrarily in non-taxonomic order. One has the option of binding them, of placing them in notebooks or boxed sets. Each fascicle is an in-depth coverage of the ecology, plumages, behavior, and breeding biology of each species. The molt and biometric information is usually quite good. Sometimes these are written by the authority on the species (in which case they can be quite good), and sometimes they are written by grad students just searching the literature (in which case some are fairly awful). Intentionally, field identification and distribution -- my two favorite topics -- are downplayed and thus are often quite poor. There is only one color photo in each fascicle, but often nice line drawings inside. It is a very expensive project (almost $2000 for the entire series). I started a subscription but was so disappointed by the uneven quality of the first few published, and the lack of up-to-date i.d. material, that I stopped after one year and just contributed my first year's subscription to a local library (which picked up the rest of the series and which I can review during library hours). There are times when the series is indispensable, but those times are few.

Each U.S. state and Canadian province has a major distributional book of varying quality that a local birder will want to own and assimilate. For California this is the classic Grinnell & Miller (1944). Now, various counties have updated distributional texts that can be quite excellent. I wrote one for Monterey  County (Roberson 1985), and am working on a revision.

Field Guides: When I was growing up, the then-current editor of Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to Western Birds was my bible. Then, in 1966, Robbins et al's Birds of North America Golden Press guide came out with illustrative pages facing the text & maps, and it became the standard. Today, the standard is the 2d ed. National Geographic Society guide (Dunn & Blom 1987); a further revised and updated 3d ed. is current in-press. I now use the National Geo. guide when I travel (no longer need any guide for local birds), but I would recommend the current Peterson guides (1980, 1990) for beginners.

For the Caribbean, Bond (1979) used to be the standard, but the just-published Raffaele et al. (1998) is superior and covers the entire region.

There have been a host of other guides in North America over recent years, mostly aimed at beginners, and several attempts at photographic guides, aimed at intermediate birders, none of them very successful. For state-of-the-art identification material, one must subscribe to the major journals or xerox the major i.d. papers as they are published. There are very few books that reach these standards, but I recommend these:

My own Rare Birds of the West Coast (Roberson 1980) was good for its time, but is now pretty dated. Some stuff is still useful, but the literature has surpassed those discussion for many species.

Journals: Major identification papers at the cutting edge of birding's frontiers have been published in various journals over the past 30 years, depending on which one was being emphasized by the publisher at the time. For years the primary journal was Audubon Field Notes, which became American Birds in 1971, and then Field Notes again in 1994. During the 1970s and 1980s, American Birds was the leader in publishing major papers [it has always fulfilled its other role -- providing seasonal summaries of distributional records across North America -- in all its guises]. The publisher, National Audubon Society, lost interest in the journal in the early 1990s and it was cut back to bare bones. It quit publishing major papers for several years. It has now been adopted by the American Birding Association and within just the last couple years has been revitalized. Major papers have again appeared in Field Notes and every birders should subscribe [for details see the ABA web site]. The other journal of continental scope is Birding magazine, published by the ABA since 1971. In its early years the focus was more on bird-finding details, and lots about the game of listing and Big Days and Big Years, and to some extent those roles are still filled by Birding or the monthly ABA newsletter Winging It. But as American Birds lost focus and then was denuded in the early 1990s, Birding (under then-editor Paul Lehman) took over the role of publishing major i.d. articles, and it still does so to some extent (the direction Birding will head in the future, under new editors, is unclear).

Two regional journals regularly publish state-of-the-art identification papers of national importance. From California, Western Birds mixes fairly mundane biological stuff with major i.d. and distributional efforts [for details see the web site for Western Field Ornithologists] and from Ontario, the new Birders Journal has recently carried some important papers, although it still is mostly filled with records and news of only local interest. Most states and provinces, and many other local regions, have their own journals and newsletters, and some are quite excellent. Occasionally, an important paper will appear in Oregon Birds, or Iowa Bird Life, or the Loon (from Minnesota), or the Massachusetts Bird Observer (to pick just four at random). And, of course, there is the formal ornithological literature, headlined in North America by the Auk (American Ornithologists' Union), the Condor (Cooper Ornithological Society), the Wilson Bulletin (Wilson Ornithological Society), and the Journal of Field Ornithology (aimed primarily at bird banders).

My hope is that Field Notes, perhaps renamed again as North American Birds, will take over the role of publishing the state-of-the-art papers aimed at the cream of American birders, and that Birding and local journals will continue to publish major papers aimed at the growing intermediate level birder. We shall see... much is currently in flux.

Non-bird Book [nature / exploration / adventure]: In 1953, Roger Tory Peterson -- the "inventor of the field guide" -- took his British friend James Fisher on a 30,000 mile journey across North America, hitting many of the birding hotspots of that era. They wrote a book about that adventure called Wild America (Peterson & Fisher 1955) that captures the tenor of the 1950s and what America was like when I was growing up. I eventually visited most of the places they visited, and Wild America is still a fine read, although it really deals with the generation before me. There is a new book that captures the idea of birding North America even better for me; growing up birding in my generation. It is by Ken Kaufman (1997) and is called Kingbird Highway. I checked it out of a local library -- it appeared to be in a genre that I don't usually buy -- and then couldn't put it down. Wonderfully entertaining, it captures the birding spirit of the 1970s and I highly recommend it.

BEST BIRDS [see my explanation for choosing "best birds" here]

Both North America and the Western Palearctic lack substantial tropics; the number of species that occur is much less than other realms. Therefore I limit my choices for "bird birds" to just three each. I toyed with the idea of including Ross's Gull Rhodostethia rosea, and it certainly is one of the "most-wanted" species breeding in North America, but the greater part of the world population actually breeds in Siberia (in my "Asian realm"), so choosing it for the Nearctic didn't seem fair somehow. I also declined to chose species that are probably extinct, thus excluding any thought of Ivory-billed Woodpecker (see the gloomy assessment of Lammertink 1995), Imperial Woodpecker, Bachman's Warbler, or Eskimo Curlew (the latter is too much like Little Curlew of Eurasia to qualify as "unique," anyway). In the end, my choices for the 3 "best birds" in the Nearctic (including the Caribbean) are:

Not in my "top 50" world birds, but worth mentioning as an "also-ran" is FAVORITE PHOTOS: This link goes to a page with the three favorite Nearctic bird photos that I have taken so far.

Literature cited:

Bent, A. C., ed. 1919-1968. Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds. 26 vols. Smithsonian Instit., Washington, D.C.; softcover reprints 1962-1968 Dover Publications, New York.

Bond, J. 1979. Birds of the West Indies. 4th ed. Collins, London.

Dunn, J. L., and E. A. T. Blom. 1987. National Geographic Society Field Guide to the Birds of North America. 2d ed. National Geographic Soc., Washington, D. C.

Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Grinnell, J., and A. H. Miller. 1944. The Distribution of the Birds of California. Pacific Coast Avif. 27. Cooper Ornith. Club, Berekely, CA.

Kaufman, K. 1990. Advanced Birding. Houghton Mifflin, Boston. [In the Peterson Field Guides series]

Kaufman, K. 1997. Kingbird Highway: the story of a natural obsession that got a little out of hand. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Lammertink, M. 1995. No more hope for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis. Cotinga 3: 45-47.

Palmer, R. S., ed. 1962-1988. Handbook of North American Birds. 5 vols. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven.

Paulson, D. 1993. Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest. Univ. of Washington Press, Seattle.

Peterson, R. T. 1980. A Field Guide to the Birds. 4th ed. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Peterson, R. T. 1990. A Field Guide to Western Birds. 3d ed. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Peterson, R. T., and J. Fisher. 1955. Wild America. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Poole, A. F., P. Stettenheim, and F. B. Gill, eds. 1990-ongoing. Birds of North America: Life Histories for the 21st century. Published individually in fascicles, Acad. of Sciences, Philadelphia, Amer. Ornithol. Union, Washington, D.C., and Cornell Lab. of Ornith., Ithaca, New York.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part 1: Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA.

Raffaele, H, J. Wiley, O. Garrido, A. Keith, and J. Raffaele. 1998. A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Robbins, C. S., B. Bruun, and H. S. Zim. 1966. A Guide to Identification: Birds of North America. Golden Press, New York.

Roberson, D. 1980. Rare Birds of the West Coast. Woodcock Publ., Pacific Grove, CA.

Roberson, D. 1985. Monterey Birds. Monterey Pen. Audubon Soc., Carmel, CA.

Wheeler, B. K., and W. S. Clark. 1995. A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors. Academic Press, New York.





Page created Feb 1999; revised 11 Apr 2000