No Easy Life: Abused Field Guides


This Sibley Guide, owned by Erik Bruhnke, was the inspiration for this photo essay.

Simply put, the one that gets used gets abused. Being the favored field guide of an active birder is no day at the beach. Well, it could be a day at the beach, but that day might include being splashed with saltwater or having sand grating between your pages. You may also be dropped in the mud at your owner's favorite shorebird hotspot, or be left to roast in the sun for hours on the dashboard of the car while he/she does a seawatch. Bird guides live a rough and tumble life, they don't get the preferential treatment enjoyed by those sissy library volumes that spend most of their days comfortably shelved in a dry, shaded, temperature controlled environment.

In this photo essay we will share a collection of images of road weary popular field guides. After viewing these images, one is left wonder if the authors or publishing houses that produced these books ever imagined that they might look like this someday? Apparently, birders were not listening when their mothers and fathers, or an elementary school librarian, told them to "be careful" with books. Didn't they tell us not to write in books? I distinctly remember being told that food and drink were not to be taken into a library as they might get spilled and damage the books. I think that every one of the field guides that I regularly use is coffee-stained, as are many featured here.

I was inspired to put together this photo essay after meeting and birding with Wisconsin native Erik Bruhnke during the summer of 2010. It should be noted here that Erik is still a young man in his mid-twenties and he's only been birding for a a decade or so, but when it comes to field guide abuse, he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Erik's copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds was, in a word, trashed. When I first laid eyes on Erik's Sibley, I was awestruck. It was sort of held together with duct tape and the cover was excessively worn with abraded  corners. I still can't imagine how the back cover came by its appearance, as it was stained with an impressive array of unrecognizable residue. Food? Beverages? Who knows? The condition of Erik's Sibley got me to thinking...just how badly do we treat our field guides?  I posted a request for photos of abused field guides to a couple of birding listservs that I subscribe to and I was quickly inundated with images of tattered, torn, taped, stained and scribbled in bird books.

Among those who sent in pictures, there seems to have been little effort invested in keeping their field guides from getting wet, sun-bleached, or soiled. Coffee stains appeared to be the leading cause of discoloration. Despite the apparent lack of concern about keeping books clean, several of the folks who contributed images had gone to great lengths in order to keep their favored books in one piece. Creative binding and tape jobs abounded.


Michael Marsh went with the proactive approach, opting to install a plastic ring binding in his Sibley before duct tape became necessary. Photo by Michael Marsh


Mike Patterson of Astoria, Oregon used a single metal ring to preempt the loss of pages from his Golden Guide. Apparently he wasn't prepared to cough up the money for a new copy (note the price on the top right corner of the cover). What happened to the days of $4 field guides? Photo by Mike Patterson.


Surely a hit with tape salesman, Golden Guides were notorious for their anti-durability binding and propensity for losing groups of pages out of the middle of the book (especially the soft cover versions). Matthew Schneider of Silverton, Oregon did a nice job on this book. Note how the transparent tape used to keep the owl page in place is barely visible. Photo by Matthew Schneider


Frank Isaacs of Philomath, Oregon went with the heavy-duty strapping tape on the exterior of his Golden Guide in an effort to keep it intact. From the looks of the cover, we suspect that this book has spent some days being kicked around on the floor of a work vehicle. Frank, a Senior Faculty Research Assistant at Oregon State University, spent many years traveling around Oregon monitoring Bald Eagle nests. Photo by Frank Isaacs


Those acquainted with Alan Contreras know him to be a collector/trader of sorts when it comes to bird books. He often buys and resells copies of vintage volumes that he finds  at book stores and other sales. He is known to use terms like "pristine" and "original dust cover" when describing his offerings. Apparently his appreciation for mint condition bird books came later in life. Pictured here is Alan's original Peterson Field Guide, which he used (and abused) when he started birding in the late 1960's. Photo by Alan Contreras


When you look up "dog-eared" in the dictionary, a photo of Paul Buescher's National Geographic Guide should appear. You know a book is well used when the place markers appear to be coffee-stained. Photo by Paul Buescher


This Peterson Guide, owned by David Heath of Portland, Oregon, seems to be structurally sound, but the ink on the cover has taken a beating. Photo by David Heath


I'd swear the cover of my National Geographic Guide is more colorful than this one. The Painted Bunting in the lower right corner looks like it should be named the "Pastel Bunting." This volume apparently spent a few too many days on the dashboard of Tom and Allison Mickel's Honda Accord. They must have made many trips away from their home state of Oregon for it to become this sun-bleached. However, from the look of the page edges, it wasn't all sunny days for this edition. Photo by Tom Mickel


Sylvia Maulding of Springfield, Oregon apparently follows the advice of prolific bird book author Steve N.G. Howell, who has been known to encourage his audiences to "write lots of notes in their field guides." The tabs separating birds by family group are a nice touch, but probably still qualify as "defacing."Photo by Sylvia Maulding

After seeing and reading about the exterior of Erik Bruhnke's field guide, some of you may be curious about what the inside looks like, so for our final offering we couldn't resist the image below. I am at a loss to explain how the inside pages of a book can get this filthy. I know that Erik does a lot of his own maintenance work on his van, so maybe he decided to bone up on blackbirds after changing his oil. The duct tape looks like it has been there for 20 years, which  is a marvel since the first edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds was published a mere decade ago.


WOW!  Photo by Erik Bruhnke


Nice series of photos! I’m embarrassed at how many Sibley guides I have lost while on the birding trail. Now I keep them in the car or at home and rely on my notes…partly to increase my birding skills, but practically to save myself from soley funding David A Sibley.

It’s fun to see several of the old “Zim Zang Zinger” or “Zim Zam Zum” guides. Young birders today don’t know that, during the 60s and 70s, these Golden Guides were the second-most-often-seen field guides, next to whatever version of Peterson. People still show up on my field trips with them. The lamentable if mostly minor inaccuracies in that book spawned Rich Stallcup’s amazing “Birds For Real,” an attempt to offer corrections. Even without a copy of “Zim Zam Zinger” to apply the corrections to, that slim volume is still marvelous. It is rarely seen today. I had heard about “Birds For Real” for years before I finally saw it on the silent auction table at an Audubon banquet and snapped it up for a buck. It sat on my toilet tank for a month. Finally it’s back on the shelf. And it’s interesting, Dave, to read of your alluding to the “pastel bunting” on the cover of your Sibley. Blues tend to endure far longer than red colors, which is why most of the plastic and printed-paper trash we see that’s really old is mostly blue. Pepsi cans half-buried in duff become mostly blue, with the side in the dirt retaining brighter red color. Posters in south- or west-facing windows become blued-out, with the reds fading; artists refer to red as a “fugitive pigment.”. You can see this phenomenon everywhere. Anyone with a copy of Roberson’s “Rare Birds of the West Coast” who put that book on a shelf that receives direct sun will attest that the decorative little Bulfinch on the spine has lost its high color…

Nice selection of truly used guides. The most used bird book I have ever seen isn’t a field guide at all, it is Chip Jobanek’s copy of the 1970 Dover reprint of the 1940 Birds of Oregon. Being a shelf copy didn’t help the poor book, as Chip used it to prepare his magnificent Bibliography of Oregon Ornithology before 1935. The book looks like some kind of Japanese paper art project, permanently fanned. However, the binding is rock-solid, which is usually true of the great Dover reprint series.

Sometimes owning a nasty, beat-up copy of a book is much more rewarding than owning a nice copy. I have handled probably twenty copies of the original 1940 Birds of Oregon, most of which are in better condition than my own dubious copy. But my copy, with some binding issues and lots of scribbles in it, belonged to Don Payne, a Eugene birder from the 1950s-1990s, who taught me to band birds. I am honored to have it.


Very funny to see how much the opposite of this my old books are. I don’t carry a book in the field much. I marked the lifelist in my hardback Peterson, but the rest is pretty much unsullied, and I sewed a bag to preserve the cover of my Sibley. Of course, my dolls were like this, too, a little too handled to be mint condition, but very much intact.


Whew! I’m glad that I’m not the only birder who can be charged with biblioabuse! In fact, now that I’ve seen these photos, I’m marvelling at the (comparatively) great condition my field guides display. I must get out more!

I bought two copies of the last Nat Geo I purchased—one for the field/my car (which is more hazardous by far than the field), and one to stay nice and clean in the house for reference. It will come as no surprise to anyone that somehow both copies ended up in the car and are similarly soiled. I gave my rain-flooded earlier edition to a new birder friend. I think. Hmmm…. or maybe it’s still somewhere in the car….


When I was about 10 years old, RTP himself came to lecture at my home town. After he spoke, I brought my tattered copy of “Field Guide to the Birds” (the 1947 edition) to him for an autograph. I told him that I had read that he liked to see well-used copies of his guide. He replied, dryly, “yes, but I didn’t mean you should play baseball with it!” He signed it, anyway. Much to my regret, that signed copy has disappeared.


I think it’s probably worthwhile to point out the symbolic component to a tattered field guide. Bill Oddie in his seminal Little Black Bird Book (1980), actually recommends distressing one’s binoculars with a few scratches and some mud so as not to stand out as a “dude”. A well used field guide is a field mark and I can tell you that when I was 17 years old and still using the above illustrated Golden Guide and sporting a pair of binoculars that had only one working eye-piece that I looked through like a telescope, it was more affectation than frugality. In my head, these were part of my uniform and were meant to signal to others that I was serious.
Now in my dotage, I signal seriousness with an entire bookshelf of bird books and a Subaru Forester…


Suburu owner…you must be a serious birder. I think it is out of print, but Bill Oddie’s “Little Black Bird Book” is about as funny as it gets. His glossary of terms captures the essence of the British birding culture’s pecking order.


Oh, those poor field guides! I’m very careful (read: anal) about the condition of my books, even field guides where I can help it. My “big” and Eastern Sibley are relatively beat up for me, but nothing like those pictured here.


I found BirdFellow quite by accident today, and I was pleased to see the essay on abused field guides. Yesterday at a second-hand store in West Michigan, I found a 1949 hardcover copy of Zim and Gabrielson’s “Birds” and bought it for the low price ($3.98) and because I enjoy the large illustrations and quirky text. Only after I gave it a second look at home did I notice that it had been autographed by Herbert Zim.

At the same second-hand store I found a field guide to birds of Great Britain last fall. I discovered a postcard stuck inside the book that was an invitation to a 1983 reunion of the Second Air Division Eighth Air Force in Norwich. On the back of invitation is a list of birds in the book owner’s handwriting, and inside the book cover is the price of the book in English pounds written in pencil.

So I’m guessing that an American serviceman who was stationed in England in WWII went back to England in 1983 for a reunion. While he was there, he bought the field guide and went birding in the area. The experience was undoubtedly very important to him, since he saved the postcard, and I am betting that he would have wanted someone to have his book who would value it, as I do.
I couldn’t let it sit on the shelf after that.

I love it, because I’ve never found another book that tells a story about the book’s owner as clearly as this one does. I’ve got email friends in England who report bird sightings to me, and whenever I look up the birds in this book, I feel the presence of its original owner.


Bob, We hope in the future that you continue to “find” BirdFellow on purpose. The story you share above is absolutely fabulous. This is the sort of exchange we hope to inspire when we publish a piece. Thanks for taking the time to share. The next time you check our online journal, you will find that I’ve created a journal article that features it.


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