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What Is a Field Guide?

By Christian Petersen
Updated May 21, 2024
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A field guide is a type of reference book, meant to be carried in the field, to aid in the identification of plants and animals. As they are meant to be carried outdoors, they are generally rather small books and not large tomes that would be more convenient in the home or library. They often make use of classification and identification systems called keys by which one may, through observation, determine the exact identity of a specific plant or animal. A field guide may also be intended for the identification of other naturally occurring objects such as gemstones or other minerals and man-made objects such as boats, cars, coins, or antiques.

Early field guides were nothing more than a collection of drawings of plants and animals with descriptions of these subjects. Many early field guides featured engravings of drawings and paintings painstakingly rendered by an artist from direct observation. Before the invention of photography, these field guides were often the only available tool for identifying plants and animals. In the early 21st century, digital field guides have begun to appear, allowing users to access volumes of information over the Internet with tablet computers and smart phones.

The technical depth of a field guide is dependent on the target audience. Some field guides offer generalized classification tools, grouping subjects loosely. More in-depth field guides make use of identification keys to provide exact determinations of identity. Identification keys are made up of a series of statements arranged in such a way as to guide the user through a step by step process. Each step has one or more possible choices, the selection of which directs the user to the next step, continuing until identification is achieved.

While the concept of a field guide was originally conceived as an aid for identifying natural objects, the scope of this type of book gradually became more and more expansive, especially in the middle of the 20th century. Specialized field guides targeting hobbyists and enthusiasts of all types began to appear, and today, field guides for all sorts of things are available. Collectible glass, antique toys, stamps, and wines are just a few examples.

In modern times, field guides for natural objects still often feature drawings in addition to or instead of photographs. Drawings offer a degree of detail and exposition often not captured by a photograph. Field guides for other objects tend to rely more on photographs than illustrations, but this is not an absolute. Modern field guides can be broad in scope or specialized, covering, for example, all the birds of North America or only the flowering plants of an isolated island.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a field guide?

A field guide is a book or other publication designed to help the user identify wildlife, plants, or other objects of natural occurrence. It is a practical resource for naturalists, providing detailed information about species, including descriptions, habitat, behavior, and illustrations or photographs for easier identification in the field.

How do I choose the right field guide for my needs?

Choosing the right field guide depends on your interests and the region you are exploring. Look for a guide that covers the specific type of wildlife or plants you're interested in and is relevant to the area you'll be in. Consider the guide's format, the clarity of its illustrations or photographs, and the depth of information provided to ensure it meets your requirements.

Are digital field guides as effective as traditional books?

Digital field guides offer portability and often include interactive features like audio calls for birds or searchable databases. They can be as effective as traditional books and are particularly useful for those who prefer a lightweight option with the ability to update information. However, some users may still prefer the tactile experience and reliability of a physical book.

Can field guides be used by beginners, or are they only for experts?

Field guides are designed for users of all skill levels. Beginners can benefit from simplified guides with clear illustrations and straightforward text, while experts might prefer comprehensive guides with detailed scientific information. The key is to find a guide that matches your level of knowledge and interest in the subject.

What are the benefits of using a field guide?

Using a field guide enhances outdoor experiences by providing valuable insights into the natural world. It encourages observation skills, helps in recognizing and appreciating biodiversity, and can increase one's understanding of ecological relationships. Field guides also play a role in citizen science by aiding in the collection of data on species distribution and abundance.

How can I contribute to the scientific community with the help of a field guide?

By using a field guide to accurately identify species, you can participate in citizen science projects that track wildlife populations and trends. Reporting your observations to online databases or local conservation groups contributes to scientific research and helps in the conservation of biodiversity. Your data can help scientists monitor changes in species distribution and inform conservation strategies.

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