Daily Archives: May 22, 2009

A Quick Guide to Field Guides

I love spotting plants or birds that I’m not familiar with and using a field guide to identify them.  If you’ve never used a field guide before, though, it can be a little like opening up a Japanese dictionary and expecting it to make sense when you’ve never learned the language. Each guide has its own way of organizing and presenting information, so it can take some practice to really get comfortable using field guides.  However, there are a few things that they all have in common:

  • All field guides are organized by geographical location.  A guide to the birds of North America might break things down by region, a field guide to the birds of the Mid-Atlantic states might break things down even further by state, and a guide to the birds of Pennsylvania will probably break things down by county or more specific regions within the state. 
  • Field guides are organized in a hierarchical way that allows you to narrow down the possibilities by identifying certain characteristics.  For example, in a field guide to plants you might need to identify the general shape of the leaf, the smoothness of its edges, its color, the direction of the veins, and whether the leaves grow opposite to one another or alternate.  You’ll keep narrowing down the possibilities until you’ve found a match. 
  • Some field guides use biological taxonomy to narrow down the options while others put things in layman’s terms.  If you find a guide that doesn’t seem to make any sense, keep looking!  There’s probably another guide that uses terms you’re more comfortable with.
  • All field guides tell you exactly how to use them.  In the case of field guides, the “how to use this book” section is crucial.  It explains how the information is organized, gives an explanation of the key, and usually walks you through the steps you’ll need to follow to identify something. 

 CLP has lots of field guides, on everything from seashells to insects to reptiles. Some of the more famous guide series include the National Audobon Society Field Guides— which aren’t just about birds– and the Peterson Field Guides. Whatever you happen to be interested in, you’re likely to find a guide for it.

–Irene

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