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Seven questions for Don and Lillian Stokes about their new Essential Pocket Guide

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The Stokes Essential Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America, by Donald and Lillian Stokes.
The Stokes Essential Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America, by Donald and Lillian Stokes.

I bet you know someone who will just love this new pocket guide. Since I’m a fan of Donald and Lillian Stokes’s other, larger field guides (listed below), I was immediately curious about this much lighter, much trimmer book. I interviewed the authors recently to find out where the idea for it came from, who they wrote it for, and, most important, how they decided which species to include and which to omit. –Chuck Hagner, Editor

1. I see in the introduction that the Stokes Essential Pocket Guide “is designed to get you started identifying the birds in your backyard, neighborhood, nature sanctuaries, and beyond.” What was the inspiration for the book? Where did the idea come from?

For over 33 years, we have been helping the public enjoy, appreciate, understand, and conserve birds. Most birders (41 million, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2011 survey report) interact with birds at home in their backyard. These are the beginning and intermediate birdwatchers, and we wrote this guide just for them. We feel that there still needs to be better tools to help these birdwatchers learn about birds. And we hope this new Stokes Essential Pocket Guide will help them to love and conserve the birds around them and go farther afield to see birds. We greatly enjoy teaching beginners, for you can take them very far very fast and they don’t come with any already-formed habits that might hinder their learning.

2. The full Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America (Little, Brown, 2010) included 854 species on 816 pages. This book includes only a third that many species on 288 pages. It must have been painful deciding to omit whistling-ducks, Long-tailed Duck, goldeneyes, and other species. What criteria did you use to decide which to include and which to omit?

We actually had fun deciding which species to include, keeping in mind that this was for beginning and intermediate birders and knowing that we have already created a much more complete national guide and its regional editions, the New Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern and Western Regions.

To choose the 250 species for the Essential Pocket Guide, we first used our extensive experience with beginning birdwatchers to help us sort out which species they are most likely to see. Feeder and backyard birds are obvious. Then we added urban and parkland birds.

A guide for the pocket — or windowsill

The Stokes Essential Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America, by Donald and Lillian Stokes, Little, Brown and Company, 2014, 288 pages, $15 ($17 Canadian) paper.

Enter our contest to win the Stokes Essential Pocket Guide

After that, we included birds often encountered in popular vacation spots, such as seaside and lakeside habitats. We also used the system of the American Birding Association that rates the ease of seeing birds in their normal habitat and included all of the birds most readily seen.

Read about the ABA’s Checklist Codes.

We added some other species, such as Peregrine Falcon, because they were particularly high-interest birds. It is always a judgment call, but if you are trying to identify a Long-tailed Duck, it is time to get our national or regional guides.

3. You write in the introduction that “the text is simplified and direct, and concentrates on the most important features of the bird’s appearance, habitat, and behavior.” Please explain how the text differs from that in other field guides.

The text is all new and completely different. Compared to our larger field guides, the Essential Pocket Guide gives a personality profile for each species and describes how you are most likely to encounter the bird in the wild. In addition, it simplifies but contains the essential information for the ID clues and adds an overall feel for the bird’s life by describing food and feeding habits, nest materials and placement, breeding behavior, and characteristic sounds. It also adds small icons of bird feeders and birdhouses next to the names of birds that use them.

Don and Lillian Stokes viewing the Western Reef-Heron in New Hampshire, August 2006. Photo courtesy of Stokes Birding Blog.
Don and Lillian Stokes viewing the Western Reef-Heron in New Hampshire, August 2006. Photo courtesy of Stokes Birding Blog.

4. Each species appears on a full page. A large photo takes up the top half of each page, and a second, smaller photo appears alongside the text below. How did you decide what type of photos to use in each place?

For starters, we had to decide the size of the book. At 4½“ x 7½” and with over 580 photos, this book is portable, pocket-sized, and fits comfortably in hands of many sizes. Then we had to decide how much room to give to text and photos and do justice to each. We gave priority to the main photo area, which fills more than half the page and is at the top with no distracting text, arrows, or borders.

Lillian took most of the photos for this guide. She first wanted to use photos that were beautiful and grabbed people, but she also was excited to use photos that showcased the personality profile of the bird and not necessarily in just standard field-guide pose.

There is usually one main photo in the top half of the page. Sometimes it is divided into two, as in woodpeckers, where we show male and female side by side. Sometimes there is a smaller inserted photo in the main photo space, often showing a bird in flight. In addition, there is always another small photo below the range map. That is where we can show additional information, such as different plumages, birds in flight, a specific unique behavior, a juvenile, or a bird on a nest.

For example, the corner photo of the Eastern Phoebe shows it on a nest over a porch light because this is how most people first encounter the species. She chose a group of Cedar Waxwings for the main photo, because they are the ultimate flock bird. For the American White Pelican, she showed both a single bird on top and a feeding group below; White Pelicans often feed as a group, corralling the fish with coordinated movements. The insert in the Magnolia Warbler main photo (below) shows an undertail shot of the “tail dipped in ink,” a great field clue.

The corner photo of a Black-capped Chickadee shows it hanging upside-down under a suet basket. This conveys that chickadees come to feeders, eat suet, and can feed in an acrobatic way. There are so many special photos and unique touches in this guide you will not find in usual field guides.

Yellow Warbler and Magnolia Warbler, pages 204 and 205 of The Stokes Essential Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America, by Donald and Lillian Stokes.
Yellow Warbler and Magnolia Warbler, pages 204 and 205 of The Stokes Essential Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America, by Donald and Lillian Stokes.

5. The text for each species includes the number of eggs in a brood, the number of days in the incubation phase, the number of days in the nestling phase, and the number of broods per year. Why did you include breeding information?

This type of information is not included in most books, but it is often just the type of thing beginning and intermediate birders want to know. We also include information on what birds eat and which come to bird feeders and bird houses.

Osprey, page 94 of The Stokes Essential Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America, by Donald and Lillian Stokes.
Osprey, page 94 of The Stokes Essential Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America, by Donald and Lillian Stokes.

People are often first attracted to a bird by discovering a nesting species or bird feeder species in their own backyard. Then they want to know all about it — what it eats, where it nests, and the length of each nesting stage. We get so many questions from people, such as “How long will the robin be nesting on the ledge over my front door, and when can we use the door again?” or “How long until the bluebird babies come out of the nest box?” Knowing more about the bird than just its name gives people a deeper appreciation and understanding of that birds needs.

6. I was surprised to see that the images for Osprey, Swallow-tailed Kite, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, and other species were composites. Why did you feel this was necessary?

Lillian had great fun creating a few composites in order to show certain raptors in ways that people would most frequently encounter them and to pack lots of information about the raptors in the main photo space. For example, the Osprey main photo area (left) shows two Ospreys on a big platform nest and an Osprey carrying a fish in the very special aerodynamic way that Ospreys always do, with head facing forward. Then there is an Osprey overhead flying with wings slightly bent into an M shape, so diagnostic of Ospreys in flight.

For the Broad-winged Hawk composite, she wanted to share with people the excitement of seeing Broadwings doing their characteristic migration behavior, rising as a large group (a “kettle”) on a thermal of warm air. The photo also shows an adult and juvenile Broad-winged Hawk closer for ID. She took the Broad-winged Hawk photos from our hawk watch site, Pack Monadnock Raptor Migration Observatory, in Miller State Park in southern New Hampshire. Lillian got hooked on birds as a budding hawk-watcher and she says she still get goose bumps when she goes up on the mountain each fall and sees swirling kettles of Broadwings migrate overhead. She wanted to share that with people and motivate them to go see it for themselves.

7. What’s next for Don and Lillian Stokes?

Well, this is our 35th book! Our first job is to help people become aware that this book exists and that it is a great resource for so many. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk about it here and share our excitement about this book with your readers. In the future, we will continue to develop more new ways we can help people enjoy and appreciate birds and make birds a greater part of their lives.

Other books by Don and Lillian Stokes

The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds of the Eastern RegionStokes East-West_165x127 and The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds of the Western Region, by Donald and Lillian Stokes, Little, Brown and Company, 2013, 512 pages (eastern), 592 pages (western), $19.99 paper. We included these books in our June 2013 roundup of new books.

The Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America, by Donald and Lillian Stokes, Little, Brown and Company, 2010, 816 pages, $24.99 ($27.99 Canadian) paper.

Read about more good books about birds.

Don and Lillian describe seven ways to deal with ­Common Grackles at your feeders.

Read Don and Lillian’s blog, the Stokes Birding Blog.

Enter our contest to win the Stokes Essential Pocket Guide Originally Published

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