Wildlife Field Guide

Jack Ballard
March 16, 2012
Filed under Feature Stories

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Wildlife Field Guide

A wildlife field guide can help you identify species such as this mature bald eagle

Want to learn more about wildlife? Carry a wildlife field guide when you go camping and hiking. Thanks to the widespread availability of field guides (which not only cover common wildlife species but other things such as insects, rare plants and wildflowers) in both print and digital formats, identifying and learning more about a particular species has never been easier. But before you dive into a book or an app for a mobile device devoted to species identification, you’ll need to know how to use it.

Wildlife field guides most commonly organize animals by families. In bird guides, the various warblers are in one section, along with other birds that are closely associated with warblers. Mammal guides are similar. For North American field guides to mammals, hoofed animals of the deer family such as elk, moose, whitetail deer and caribou will be found in the same section. This organization is helpful if you have a rough idea of the identity of an unknown species. If the bird looks like a warbler, then head to that section of the guide.

Once you’re in the right section of the field guide, identifying a particular species often takes a little sleuthing. Certain species are so distinctive they can’t easily be confused with any other bird. However, making a positive identification of other creatures isn’t always so easy. When examining your wildlife field guide, avoid the temptation of trying to perfectly match its representative photographs or drawings to the bird or animal you’re attempting to identify. Many species of birds and some animals display a wide range of color variations. For example, rough-legged hawks can appear from very dark to quite pale. If you focus too heavily on the pictures, it’s easy to misidentify creatures whose pelage may vary from the norm.

To properly identify the creature in question, analyze it in relation to the illustrations and written descriptions in the field guide, paying close attention to distinguishing characteristics and the animal’s range. Good field guides point out the most important creature features that separate one species from another. For example, many sparrows are your basic small, brown bird with a creamy breast. However, some species have a light ring around their eye. Others exhibit streaking on their breast or a beak of a certain color. By focusing on a combination of such diagnostic marks, it’s possible to match the defining characteristics to a certain species.

Along with physical characteristics, wildlife field guides usually include a description of an animal’s size. While size can be helpful in identification, it’s important to remember, especially with mammals, that “normal” size can increase or decrease quite dramatically depending on an animal’s geography and habitat. Whitetail deer in southern states are much smaller than those found in the North. A large buck in the southern United States might weigh 150 pounds while a robust specimen in northern Saskatchewan can burden the scale by nearly twice that amount. In analyzing the size of bird, it’s sometimes difficult to make a good estimate of height or wingspan (two measurements used commonly in field guides or apps) unless you have some point of comparison. However, size can’t be disregarded completely as it is the most distinguishing characteristic separating some similar species, such as sharp-shinned (smaller) and Cooper’s Hawk (larger).

So what are the best wildlife field guides? Here are some of my favorites. For birds, I like the “National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America” as a print guide. “Mammals of North America (Princeton Field Guides)” is my choice for identifying four-legged critters with fur. For creepy-crawlies, I use the Petersen’s Field Guides to reptiles and amphibians. Go to www.audubonguides.com/field-guides/mobile-apps for a list of excellent resources from Audubon Guides.

As much as I enjoy seeing all my familiar friends of the natural world, it’s always a thrill to encounter the unexpected and unknown. With the right resources, it can be great fun to identify each new creature.


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