People often ask me about which field guides and other books I recommend for bird identification and learning about birds and other wildlife.
Below are some good books that I use, or have used, and recommend for anyone interested in birding and nature exploration in Kenya and other parts of Africa. I have given my honest reviews and opinions for each and links where you can get them. Key features are highlighted in bold text.
FIELD GUIDES (GUIDEBOOKS) – BIRDS
(Above are two cover variations, depending on whether the copy you purchase was published by Helm or Princeton. The content of the book is the same, however, regardless of the cover.)
This is my top recommendation when it comes to field guides to use when birding in Kenya. I find it to have the most accurate and life-like illustrations among all of the available field guides that cover the birds of Kenya. Additionally, it has the most detailed and concise text, describing the plumage (for various ages, sexes, and races), calls/songs and range of each species. Along with the text, there is a distribution map for each species, except for vagrants or those with a tiny range within the country (in which case the localities where they occur are simply mentioned in the text). The range descriptions and maps are much more detailed than those of the other field guides and include exact localities, as well as breeding/non-breeding ranges. There are also detailed illustrations and descriptions of nests for weavers and relatives. 1089 species occuring in Kenya (actually more, considering that several have been split since the book was published) and an additional 34 northern Tanzanian species not found in Kenya are covered in the book.
This field guide is an abriged version of the original, published in 1996, which was large and bulky in comparison and better suited as a reference book to keep at home rather than carry in the field.
The book is available in paperback, hardcover or Kindle versions: Click here to see it
The beauty of this book is that it covers the entire East Africa region (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi). However, like most field guides with a broad geographic coverage, the range maps and text are not very detailed. It does however have good illustrations and the overall quality of the book is quite high. The range maps and text appear directly opposite the colour plates, unlike Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania where they appear on a separate page. I consider it the second-best field guide for Kenya and the best for the East Africa region. This book also has an electronic version, as a smartphone app that you can download from the Google Play Store for Andriod phones or Apple App Store for iOS phones. The app version includes audio of the vocalizations (calls and songs) of most species and is a handy tool to have in the field.
See the book on Amazon: Click here.
This book covers the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, except for Madagascar. Pemba, Socotra and the islands in the Gulf of Guinea are also included. It is a good resource for any birder interested in the birds of Africa, especially those who travel extensively, but the illustrations of some species are not the best and the distribution maps are also very general. It covers 2,129 species and the BirdLife International conservation status of several threatened species are included. It is a useful book for an overall look at sub-Saharan Africa’s entire bird fauna. For field guide purposes, I would carry a more specific field guide for the particular region or country I am visiting (if one is available) and use this book more for comparison and additional reference, especially for difficult species like cisiticolas and greenbuls. Having a knowledgable local guide also helps of course.
See the book on Amazon: Click here
This comprehensive book covers all 106 species of diurnal raptors (birds of prey) that occur in continental Africa, which by the way has more diurnal raptor species than any other continent! The book covers the entire mainland but does not include Madagascar and the other islands. It has very high quality colour plates illustrating each species in fine detail from many different angles, both perched and in flight. It includes the different plumages of the numerous moults that many raptors undergo before becoming adults (1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year, etc), which are not included in most field guides and is one of the things that makes raptors so challenging to identify. It also shows differences between sexes, races/subspecies and different color morphs. The text includes notes on identification, taxonomy, geographic variations, distribution, habitat, behaviour and moult among other things. There are also real photographs included in the text area and range maps from the African Raptor Data Bank. It does not include much detail in terms of the biology of the species, but it is quite impressive for what is meant to be mainly a field guide. It is a fairly sizeable hardcover book so I usually don’t carry it to the field. The quality of this book is impressive and I highly recommend it if you are interested in the raptors of Africa.
You can get it on Amazon as a hardcover or Kindle: Click here
FIELD GUIDES – OTHER WILDLIFE
These are not bird books but I am including them as all birders are generally interested in nature overall. These guides will help you identify the other fauna and flora that you encounter while birding in Africa.
This is hands down the best and most comprehensive field guide to the mammals of Africa. Not only are the illustrations extremely life-like but the text and maps are also extremely detailed. It includes more than 1,160 species and covers a wide range of topics beyond just descriptions and distributions; including ecology, behaviour, habitat, adaptations, taxonomy and evolutionary history. Even difficult species-rich groups like rodents, bats, golden-moles and primates are covered impressively well. I highly recommend it for anyone going on an African safari or simply anyone interested in the mammals of Africa.
It is available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon: Click here
Field Guide to East African Reptiles (2nd Edition) – Stephen Spawls, Kim Howell, Herald Hinkel and Michele Menegon. 2018
For those of you who also like your herpetofauna, there is simply no other guidebook that is as good as this one when it comes to the reptiles of East Africa. The authors are among the top experts on the region’s reptiles.
You can get it in paperback or Kindle version: Click here
I’m not very interested in butterflies but many birders tend to be and I am told that this is the book to have. I honestly haven’t used this book much apart from the occassional glance into a friend’s copy and so can’t say much about its quality, but it seems to be the book that everyone is using as their butterfly guide and the reviews on Amazon are quite good as well.
Get it in paperback or Kindle version: Click here
Stuarts’ Field Guide to the Tracks and Signs of Southern, Central and East African Wildlife – Chris and Mathilde Stuart. 2013
This is a fantastic book if you enjoy walking in nature and trying to interpret what you see. Which animal’s footprint is that? Which bird made that nest? Is that a lion’s poop? The authors are experts at interpreting field signs and have compiled their knowledge into this amazing book. It is a combination of excellent photos, illustrations and text showing the vast range of tracks and signs that African animals make. It includes the tracks/spoor (footprints) of all sorts of animals ranging from mammals, birds, snakes and frogs to scorpions, caterpillars and marine invertebrates. It also includes scat/dung/droppings, nests, pellets, prey remains, territorial marks, browsed vegetation and all manner of other clues that you can use to figure out which animals have been around. It is a must have for the avid field naturalist.
Get it as a paperback book or Kindle: Click here
If you have a botanical interest as well, this book is a useful resource to have for East Africa. It covers most of the common trees and shrubs of the East African region. It includes a combination of photos, illustrations and text on identification and range as well as other details such as medicinal and cultural/traditional uses of various trees. Both native and exotic trees are included.
Get it on Amazon: Click here
Here are a few other books that are not field guides but are great for anyone interested in learning about the birds and other wildlife of Africa.
The Birds of Africa. 1986-2013 (8 Volumes)
This mega 8-volume set took 27 years to complete and is THE standard reference on the birds of Africa. With input from numerous experts, it covers all species that occur in Africa, including Madagascar and its associated islands. Each volume covers several families, describing them in great detailed with colour plates and descriptive text. It also covers various aspects of their biology in depth, including habitat, breeding biology, behavior, food, voice, range and movements.
Here are links to all 8 volumes:
- The Birds of Africa, Volume I (Ostriches and Birds of Prey) – Leslie Brown, Emil Urban and Kenneth Newman. 1986
- The Birds of Africa, Volume II (Game Birds to Pigeons) – Emil K. Urban, C. Hilary Fry and Stuart Keith (Eds.). 1986
- The Birds of Africa, Volume III (Parrots to Woodpeckers) – C. Hilary Fry, Stuart Keith and Emil K. Urban (Eds.). 1988
- The Birds of Africa, Volume IV (Broadbills to Chats) – Stuart Keith, Emil K. Urban and C. Hilary Fry (Eds.). 1992
- The Birds of Africa, Volume V (Thrushes to Puffback Flycatchers) – Emil K. Urban, C. Hilary Fry and Stuart Keith (Eds.). 1997
- The Birds of Africa, Volume VI (Picathartes to Oxpeckers) – C. Hilary Fry and Stuart Keith (Eds.). 2000
- The Birds of Africa, Volume VII (Sparrows to Buntings) – C. Hilary Fry and Stuart Keith (Eds.). 2004
- The Birds of Africa, Volume VIII (The Malagasy Region) – Roger Safford and Frank Hawkins. 2013
This is one of my favourite books on wildlife and the natural histroy of Kenya. It is a very well-written and enjoyable to read book. It tells the story of Kenya from pre-historic times (millions of years) to the present. There are chapters on geology, fossils and human origins, the earliest human cultures, the landscape, climate/weather patterns, vegetation and habitats, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, the marine environment, conservation and other aspects of Kenya’s natural history. It is very comprehensive and presents complex concepts in an entertaining and easy-to-understand manner that anyone can understand, not just scientists. The book is over 400 pages long. Each chapter is long, detailed and in-depth, but is also self-contained so you don’t have to read the book in any particular order. It is filled with excellent photographs, text and some illustrations. It is a fascinating read and provides insights into Kenya that I have not seen in any other book. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in Kenya’s wildlife, ecosystems, human histroy, conservation and natural history overall.
Get it on Amazon: Click here
This one is a classic in Kenyan ornithology and laid the foundation for a lot fo what we know about the distribution of birds in Kenya. We are now working to update this knowledge through the current Kenya Bird Map project and this book provides a great reference and baseline for it. This is a book that is a bit technical and scientific and so might not be very enjoyable for the regular birder. There are few photographs and all are in black-and-white. It is mainly a compilation of grid maps (quarter square degrees) and text describing the distribution of Kenya’s birds as they were known up to 1989, including areas with known breeding records, distinguishing between historical and recent records. For those who are more scientifically-inclined and particularly interested in atlassing/distribution mapping or just interested in looking at the historical distributions of Kenya’s birds, this book is worth getting.
Get the book as a hardcover or Kindle: Click here
This one is purely for fun. It’s not about birds but rather about birders themselves. The way they think and behave, what makes them tick, their adventures and misadventures. It is a hilarious and insightful look at birders as a community, or a “tribe”. The author tells many amusing stories about himself, his friends and other birders he has met or known throughout the years, since his childhood days. He also talks about the origins of birding, the development of various optics like binoculars and scopes, and the growth of birding into what it is today as a popular hobby. It’s mainly about birders in Britain but it is a great book that any birder anywhere can relate to.
Check it out: Click here
This book is a pure joy to read. Watson explains in the preface that it is a book about the birds that are “quintessentially African”, and that the aim is to expand the interest of the reader in Africa’s birdlife by both informing and entertaining. The focus is primarily on sub-Saharan Africa and he does a good job of incorporating all the major regions rather than being biased to East Africa, where he is based. Some of the birds featured are extremely rare, or at least live in places inaccessible to most birders, while others are very common and widespread. What I liked most about this book is that even the most common of birds are presented in a captivating light, with interesting and little-known facts about them included. I certainly learned something new about each of the featured birds. It is a well-researched book written in language that the layman can easily understand. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Africa’s birds!
Read my full review of this book here.
The book is available in paperback and Kindle forms. Click here to check it out
This is not actuallt a book but simply a checklist, as its name suggests. It does not contain any descriptions, illustrations, photographs or maps to help identify birds or show their distribution. It is a comprehensive list of all the birds that are known to be found in Kenya, arranged by family in taxonomic order. Each species is listed by its English and scientific names. Wherever a species has been split by a taxonomic authority but still unsplit by others, this is indicated. The movements/occurence status of species are also indicated, e.g. whether it is a migrant from the Palearctic, Afrotropical, Malagasy or Oriental region, or whether it is an endemic, visitor, vagrant, rarity, etc. Birds that have not been recorded for 50 years (i.e. historical records) and those thought to have become extinct in Kenya are also indicated as such. So in summary, it is a list of the birds of Kenya, arranged in taxonomic order, that indicates the movements and/or occurence status of each species. Note once again that it is NOT meant to guide you on identifying the species.
You can get it at the Nature Kenya office, or on their website: Click here
The following are just bonuses that I have not personally read yet but that have been recommended by friends as good books. I thought it would be worth adding them for anyone who wants to check them out. I have not included any reviews since I’ve not read them yet myself.
- Birds of Prey of Africa and its Islands – Alan and Meg Kemp. 1998
- 100 Common Bird Calls in East Africa – Dave Richards and Brian Finch. 2016 (Includes audio CD with the bird calls)
- The Birder’s Guide to Africa – Michael Mills. 2017
- 50 Top Birding Sites in Kenya – Catherine Ngarachu. 2017
- Beat About The Bush: Mammals – Trevor Carnaby. 2008
- Beat About The Bush: Birds – Trevor Carnaby. 2009
- Beat About the Bush: Mammals and Birds – Trevor Carnaby. 2014
- Beat About the Bush: Exploring The Wild – The Comprehensive Guide – Trevor Carnaby. 2018
- Southern African Birds of Prey – Peter and Beverly Pickford and Warwick Tarboton. 1989
- What is That Bird Saying?: A Study of names and cultural beliefs about birds amongst the Marakwet people of Kenya – Johnstone Kibor Kassagam. 1997 (Could not find a good source to get this online, but still included it for those interested in the cultural side of birding and want to see if they can do some digging and acquire it. It is likely available locally in Kenya if you look hard enough.)
Though not a book, here is an extra free online resource for those who want to learn the calls, songs and vocalizations of birds. It is a citizen science platform that includes recorded audio submitted by people from all around the world. It covers nearly all of the world’s birds: Xeno-canto
For reviews and recommendations on cameras, binoculars, spotting scope, audio recorders and other useful equipment for birding and nature exploration, visit the OPTICS AND ELECTRONICS page.