Field guide

From Academic Kids

A field guide is a book designed to help the reader identify wildlife (plants or animals) or other objects of natural occurrence (e.g. minerals). It is generally designed to be brought into the 'field' or local area where such objects exist to help distinguish between similar objects.

It will typically include a description of the objects covered, together with paintings or photographs and an index. More serious and scientific field identification books will probably include identification keys to assist with identification, but the publicly-accessible field guide is more often a browsable picture guide organized by family, color, shape, location or other descriptors.



Popular interest in identifying things in nature probably were strongest in bird and plant guides. In 1902, Florence Merriam Bailey, wife of well-known zoologist Vernon Bailey wrote a Handbook of Birds of the Western United States which was arranged by taxonomic order and had clear descriptions of species size, distribution, feeding and nesting habits, resembling the modern field guide. From this point to the 1930s, many much more modern parts of field guides were tried out by Chester A. Reed and others such as changing the size of the book to fit the pocket, including color plates, and different subjects such as garden and woodland flowers, insects and dogs.

In 1934, Roger Tory Peterson, using his fine skill as an artist, changed the way modern field guides approached identification. Using color plates with paintings of similar species together - and marked with arrows showing the differences - people could use his bird guide in the field to compare species quickly to make identification easier. This technique was used in most of Peterson's Field Guides from animal tracks to seashells.

Also popular in the 1960s were the Golden Guides which expanded the range of subjects of what a field guide could address, including antique glass, wine, photography and hallucinogenic plants (often written by experts in their respective field - the latter was written by Schultes, a respected name in ethnobotany). This series was mostly edited by Herbert Zim for Golden Press.

Today, each field guide has its own range, focus and organization. Peterson, Golden, The Audubon Society, Stokes, National Geographic, Observer Books, HarperCollins, the RSPB and many others all produce quality field guides.

How do Field Guides work?

The main point of field guides are to definitively identify a bird, plant, rock, butterfly or other natural object down to the popular naming level. To this end field guides may employ a few simple keys, scanning illustrations for a match and comparison of similar-looking things by their differences. They are designed to help people limit their search to a section of the book where choices are few. Plant field guides such as Newcombs frequently have an abbreviated key that helps limit the search. Insect guides tend to limit identification to Order or Family levels rather than individual species due to their diversity.

The Future

The Internet and other technical and organizational advances shows promise for advancing the field guide concept. Products that use handheld devices and GPS mapping to bring into the field will stretch the idea of what a field guide is for the future.

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