Cloudy Days and Connected Nights

With tablet and iPhone in hand and head in the clouds

Peterson iPhone Guide to Backyard Birds

with 4 comments

Peterson's iPhone Guide

Peterson's iPhone Guide

Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America started an industry. His art, and his writing, defined birdwatching for several generations in America, and his name is recognized in birding circles world-wide. He invented the field mark, a system of arrows in his illustrations pointing to significant details that are off use in identifying birds in the field, most often elaborated in the accomping text. Many of us grew up as birders depending on field marks for our ids.

For that reason, one approaches the Peterson iPhone Guide to Backyard Birds with a certain justifiable expectation. Peterson’s heirs and publisher gurad his reputation well. Any product that carries the Peterson name must reach a certain standard of excellence.

In this the iPhone Backyard Birds, by WildTones, does not disappoint.

Detialed Illustrations and Range Maps

Detialed Illustrations and Range Maps

The illustrations are of highest quality, directly from the most recent Peterson’s guides, and with the bird sounds and songs, make up the strong suit of the app. Where necessary both sexes are shown. For many birds, where regional variation comes into play, they are illustrated. Many feature both adult and immature plumages. And all feature clear bold field mark arrows.

The range maps, also direct from the Peterson’s printed guides, are also of high quality, and quite easy to read. Both illustrations and maps can be expanded by the traditional iPhone pinch motion on the touchscreen, though both run out of resolution fairly quickly. Still it is useful if you want to see a particular field mark more closely or check a boundary on the map.

The song recordings, provided by Lang Elliott, who just might be the Peterson of bird recording, are exceptional. A wide range of vocalizations are provided where needed and the recordings are clear and loud enough so that playback on the internal speaker of the iPhone 3G and iPod Touch 2G is completely practical.

The browse screen (taxonomic order) and Species text

The browse screen (taxonomic order) and Species text

The text provided for each species does a good job of reinforcing the field mark arrows, elaborating as needed to make the point. Basic habitat and range information is embedded in the text, without being highlighted in any way. This is a drawback, imho, as it makes some of the most essential information for beginning birders harder than it needs to be to find. Information is also given on what kinds of feeder foods the birds like, to help beginners tailor their backyard feeding stations.

In fact, the text is the first disappointing feature of the guide. Most descriptions are no longer than you would find in a really basic printed guide, where space limitations are much more stringent than in any electronic format. Most of the text pages have a lot of empty space that might have been filled with other useful information about the species, or more elaborate descriptions.

And of course, as guide intended for backyard birders, the text is kept to what one might call an introductory level.

The illustrations and maps, however, are of such high quality that this guide will leave any avid birder hungry for a complete North American version with expanded text resources.

Audio and Visual ID quizes

Audio and Visual ID quizes

As a guide meant for beginning birders, the app also includes some interactive id games, both visual and sound, to help the birder become better at id.

You can also sort the included birds by the first two digits of zip codes. A two digit zip map of the country by region is provide to help. For many states this results in a single state list. For states with multiple zips, it can generate several separate lists. The feature is not, imho, all that useful however, as the zip boundaries are in no way related to regional distinctions within states. In fact, I am not sure there is any kind of natural logic to how the boundaries were drawn beyond human population patterns.

Finally, there is a simple check list feature. A check button on each species page allows you to add it to your list, and a check list button on the home page allows you to call up the list of species to view it. Not very sophisticated but certainly as good as ticking off the species you have seen in the index of your first field guide, or making marks next to the drawings on the pages. (The two most common ways for birders to begin their life-lists.)

Of course, we have to compare this app to the similarly named iBird Explorer Backyard edition for the iPhone. I am tempted to say they are so different that no comparison is really meaningful. Certainly no best/worst, or even “better/worser” distinction can be made.

iBird Explorer presents its illustrations completely differently. Recent revisions, just now reaching the app store, have expanded the range of illustrations, both drawings and photos, of each species dramatically, but there is nothing like the all-variations-on-one-page illustrations the Peterson guide provides. While there is definitely more visual information contained in the iBird approach, it can be more difficult for the beginning birder to sort out. Also, there is nothing in iBird that corresponds to the field mark arrows Peterson provides.

Sound recordings in iBird are excellent. For a few species, sound recordings in Peterson are, to my ear, just slightly better (louder, more complete). Either is an amazing resource in the field and for learning.

Where the two really begin to differ however is in the search facilities. Peterson has only the zip code search. iBird has an amazingly sophisticated set of search criteria that, once mastered, allows you to generate highly specific lists: lists limited pretty much only by your own imagination and your skill in using the feature.

Compared to the brief descriptions in the Peterson guide, the shear amount of textural information provided in iBird has to be seen to be appreciated. There are pages and pages of it for each species, all of it in great detail, and all of it highly and clearly organized. The iBird text will provide any birder, no matter how advanced, with enough reading and study material to occupy the mind for years to come. iBird, in that sense, is way beyond a field guide. Even the Backyard edition is a complete reference to the birds it covers, the equivalent of a whole bookshelf of books.

Both are Backyard editions, but it is too simple to say the Peterson, with its simple text and quiz system, is geared more for the beginner than iBird. Beginners will reach the limits of what is in the Peterson much quicker than they will reach the limits of what is in iBird, but they will learn a lot from either program.

If you are birder of any stamp, you already know that this exercise of comparison is pretty pointless. Any beginning birder with an iPhone or iPod Touch is going to end up owning, and enjoying both of these excellent guides. Neither, by print standards, is expensive (in fact both are bargains). Each will be enjoyed for its merits, and using and studying both will only make the backyard birder grow in his or her skill faster, and have more fun doing it!

In fact, I suspect that both these applications will stay on any iPhone or Touch they are insalled on for the life of the device! And both will be used regularly for backyard observations. That is a testimony to the unique strengths of each, and to the quality of both. Such wealth! Two backyard field guides for the iPhone toting birder. Life is good.

(One added note: iBird Explorer Backyard serves as an entry to the whole iBird and search system. Search and id skills learned on the backyard edition transfer seamlessly to the Plus, full North American, or the regional iBird editions. We can hope that WildTones will expand the range of their offerings in a similar way.)

The Peterson iPhone Guide to Backyard Birds is available at the iTunes app store for $2.99. The WildTones web site is here. Check out About Us at the bottom of the page.

Peterson’s iPhone Guide to Backyard Birds. Can you resist? I certainly couldn’t.


Written by singraham

February 14, 2009 at 3:03 pm

4 Responses

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  1. […] Peterson iPhone Guide to Backyard Birds (review at Cloudy Days and N’tbook Nights) […]

  2. I did not find the PFG as great as your review makes it sound. I use reviews in iTunes to make my buying decisions – Peterson has 2 1/2 stars out of 5 which means “save your money”.

    I like the favorites feature but there are birds in it that would never show up in my yard like the Bald Eagle. Maybe people in Alaska and Washington with big farms might see them. At the same time birds that are common to my backyard are missing.

    I think the UI sucks but I guess we all have our own opinions (mine is supported by most iTunes reviewers however). I think PFG could have been a much better product – instead it feels like WildTones ported the printed book into a pretty digital page flipper.

    Otis Ryder

    February 15, 2009 at 4:21 pm

  3. Otis: I certainly agree that the UI could be more creative, and make better use of the iPhone technology, but, as a printed book port, it is pretty good…and the contents, while generalized for “backyards” all across NA, are of overall high quality. It is certainly worth every bit of the $2.99 purchase price, and, imho, then some. I have never seen an app that could not be improved. And PIGTBB is no different in that.


    February 15, 2009 at 5:39 pm

  4. Each to his own binoculars so each to his own birding software. Frankly I really like the Thayer CD-ROMs and hope they end up on the iPhone. For the PFG I see a glass not just half empty only fumes are left, you see it half full and filling up. You say its a decent port of a book? So how comes there is no ability to turn pages? They make you go back to the list each time to see a different bird. Come on how hard would a “next” button have been.

    Otis Ryder

    February 15, 2009 at 6:12 pm

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