The Peterson Reference Guide series of bird identification books continues with another fine ID assist, perhaps the most-needed of recent issues.

The latest in this series deals with North American sparrows, those LBJs, aka the “little brown jobs” that can be tough ID challenges. Sparrows are small, wary and often prefer heavy cover. Try getting a good look at a grasshopper sparrow in its tall-grass habitat.

Previous books in this series have dealt with gulls, woodpeckers (2016), bird sounds (2017), and a 12-step program for bird identification (2018).

The books are published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with sponsorship by the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and the National Wildlife Federation.

“The Sparrows of North America” was written by Rick Wright. His credentials are extensive: first as a guide for bird tours, then holder of master’s and Ph.D. degrees in German from Princeton University, assistant professor of German at the University of Illinois, reader/scholar at Princeton’s Index of Christian Art, and, finally, associate professor of medieval studies at Fordham University.

His discussion of savannah sparrow, for example, is just under 10,000 words long. This, too, could be a book. You will not find more complete or better written accounts of these birds than those provided here by Wright.

Wright, as might be expected, writes very well. His examination of each species begins with naming — who named the bird, when and why. These are stories that could by themselves be a book.

In 369 pages, Wright thoroughly examines 76 members of what he calls the sparrow clan. This includes juncos and towhees.

Field identification information is extensive, plumage and similar species are covered in detail. The similar species comparisons are of particular value. He discusses range and geographic variations.

Large, with sewn binding, the book is well-made, hardly pocket size, not a book you’re likely to take into the field. This is a book you read before you leave the house. It is an entertaining as well as informative read, dealing with more than the mechanics of identification.

Wright’s many interests surely include a deep passion for birds. This book must have taken years of field and reference work. In the birding world this could be considered the work of a lifetime.

Each species account is illustrated with more than 300 fine photos, many by Brian Small, a California birder/photographer, a leader in the photographic ID field. There are pages of notes on text sources, and a very complete index.

The book is priced at $35. It was released in March.

Bird song made visible

In 2017 I reviewed the first in the two-book set of Peterson reference guides to bird sounds of North America, east then, west in hand today.

I was dubious about using them. On second look, both of these books are helpful to someone like me, a guy with a tin ear. The value of this set extends to birders who have better ears.

Tin ear means an “insensitivity to and inability to appreciate the elements of performed music … the rhythm, elegance, or nuances …”

That’s me and bird sounds. I have trouble re-creating in my mind what I just heard, how the song was structured, when high, when low.

This pair of books from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt presents massive amounts of work by author Nathan Pieplow. He has created thousands of spectrograms of bird sounds.

A spectrogram is a sound made visible. You can see these bird songs and calls.

Plus, there is reference to more than 6,000 bird sound files available online at With the song in my ear and the spectrogram in my eye, suddenly vague sounds take shape and make sense.

Sonograms take some study by the reader/listener. But being able to put sound to diagram is very helpful. I can hear better when I use my eyes.

We are learning a new language here, and, in essence, Pieplow explains the grammar, punctuation, dialect and spelling.

Both of these books, “Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western (Eastern) North America” are part of the Peterson Field Guide Series. They are books well made, with durable covers, and dozens of pages of instructions to help the reader/listener understand how all of this works.

Imagine seeing the songs and call notes. The books are $28 each.


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