Tracking the Evolution of the 3rd Edition
of the National Geographic Society's
Field Guide to the Birds of North America
By Fred Bouchard
In the interest of birders curious for a behind-the-scenes look
at how the NGS Field Guide, 3rd Edition was put together, individual phone
interviews were conducted with the principal consultants in the effort: chief
consultant Jon Dunn
(at home in Ohio between avian excursions far and wide),
art and general consultant Jonathan Alderfer
(at home in Washington, D.C.),
and chief map consultant Paul Lehman
(at home in Cape May, New Jersey via email).
The following is the somewhat edited text of those interviews.
Jon L. Dunn
Chief Consultant of all three editions of the NGS guide
(he shared this role with Eirik Blom on the 2nd edition).
Jon is also the co-author with Kimball Garrett of
"Peterson Field Guides®: Warblers" and numerous identification
articles. He is the host for the "Advanced Birding Video Series"
and leads birding tours for WINGS, Inc.
TVB: Why and how did National Geographic get involved in producing the
first edition in 1983?
Dunn: National Geographic's two bird books (one on song and garden birds,
the other on water, prey, and gamebirds) were out of print and they decided
to come up with a new bird book series -- guide book, LPs, and a coffee table book.
TVB: How did you come to be involved in the enterprise?
Dunn: When Claudia Wilds was hired for the field guide, she talked to at
least a dozen people across North America. She and I spent a day or two in
Southern California discussing difficult bird identifications. When she later had
a falling out with production and resigned, she recommended me. I took over
in the fall of 1980, and worked with Shirley Scott, editor of the First and
TVB: We see substantial taxonomic shifts in the ordering of the guide:
raptors precede shorebirds. Your reasoning?
Dunn: The First Edition did not follow AOU, but rather intended to clump the
work of the various artists. This did not work well, because there were so
many changes. When Don Malick was diagnosed with cancer, for example, he
took no more assignments. We realized we should have followed taxonomic
sequence from the get-go, but by then it was too late. The Second Edition
gave us a chance to modify all the text and make some art work changes (a
few new plates and some corrections). The Second Edition appeared so soon
after the first (1987) because NGS still had the plates; they were returned
to the artists after that edition came out. For the Third Edition, we followed
taxonomic sequence, keeping the AOU checklist in mind more closely,
though the vultures are still with the raptors rather than storks.
TVB: Is the order of birds within groups determined by size and scale?
Dunn: And species proximity. Two new loon plates group Common and
Yellow-Billed; they also reflect improved renderings of comparative
plumages, as well as advances in identifying Arctic and Pacific.
We still tried to stick to taxonomic order where practical.
TVB: Were species text changes your decision? What was the process?
Dunn: Texts had to be more concise in most cases as more species were shown.
I wrote the drafts for 80 new accounts (99 including splits), Catherine
Howell polished them, and Mary Dickenson edited them. For the rewritten
accounts, I had free wheel except for space. I marked up changes, deleted
irrelevancies (meadowlarks were so complicated I just rewrote it) and Mary
TVB: I imagine you had some serious deadlines.
Dunn: People must understand the constraints. The book was done in such a
rush that I went around to meet with the artists as they completed their
drafts. We ran out of time and money. I worked on this project for only
eight months! Paul only started his maps last December [five months into
the project]. We begged NGS for another year, but they overruled us.
TVB: What specific parts are you proudest of?
I'm happy with all of the plates, the new figures mostly blend well into the
old plates. The Empids plate is a huge improvement, as are the loons, and the
seven new shorebird plates (such as dowitchers, golden-plovers). Boobies and the
albatross are now much more accurately painted with more plumages shown.
Michael O'Brien's Atlantic Pterodroma (p. 33) are excellent. John Schmidt
did a superb job on raptors. Tom Schultz did his usual exacting and
meticulous work on the Catharus (thrushes, p. 349). Tom also did new gull
plates and other figures (such as Stripe-Headed Tanagers). David Quinn, a
British artist, did the new loon plates and inserted many new European
species -- very, very nice work.
TVB: What sections do you think still need improvement?
Dunn: David Quinn was so swamped he simply could not schedule a new godwit
plate. Chickadees could use a re-do.
TVB: Were there any missed deadlines due to late-splitting species?
Dunn: No, we worked entirely from the 1998 checklist. We covered the
geographic variation within the Spotted and Eastern Towhees where there
could be further splits down the road.
TVB: A sense of the evolving sophistication of America's birding community
shows in your detailed introduction and technical write-ups. Was this a
Dunn: Learning Latin is no harder than learning English names. If you
explain something, you can bring your audience along. I'm not one for
dumbing down to the beginning birder. My former co-chief Eirik Blom also
read through the text. The introduction, written by Catherine Howell, is a
step towards communicating more effectively with birders by talking to exact
feather groups (coverts, scapulars), sub-species details, population
density, plumage variations, topographical analysis (tail feather patterns,
mandible coloration). It also discusses conservation and behavior.
TVB: It took four years for the Second Edition, and twelve more for the
Third. Given the current birding explosion, can we sooner look forward to the Fourth
Dunn: I suppose -- perhaps a decade down the road. It's up to NGS, whose
personnel is entirely different since I worked on the Second Edition in