Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review: The Sibley Guide to Birds: Second Edition

A good field guide is essential equipment for any birder/birdwatcher. In a lot of ways, it’s like a spouse: it can make your life much lovelier and richer, but once you have a good one, you don’t need another. And the more time you spend together, and the more intimately you get to know it, the more rewarding your relationship will be. Of course, bird taxonomy changes and exotic species get established and heavily used field guides eventually do fall apart, so you may want to occasionally get a new one. And if you want to become truly expert on any group--raptors, shorebirds, gulls, pelagic species, hummingbirds, warblers, etc., you'll want the specialized reference guide to that specific group—no human could possibly be truly authoritative about every single group of birds. But as long as your field guide can help you to accurately identify virtually every bird you encounter in day-to-day birding, there's no good reason to be playing the field.

Yet I myself have over 20 field guides just to North American birds, not counting the electronic versions.  My budget is extremely tight this year, but when the new Sibley Guide to Birds came out, I somehow needed to have it. I have no idea why I have this compulsion, but there you have it. I was not given a free review copy--I paid for mine.

So what do I think of it? I’m not nearly as big a fan of the original Sibley guide as many birders. My friend, the wonderful bird guide Erik Bruhnke, carries his everywhere when he’s guiding bird tours—David Sibley is one of the top bird identification authorities in the country, and he illustrates more plumages for most species than any other guide. My first edition copy is a first printing, and I was disappointed with the colors, which seem washed out. When I saw several of his original paintings for the book at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau a few years ago, I was blown away by the perfection of the colors, and subsequent printings of the first edition made them closer to those splendid originals.

Sibley, like Roger Tory Peterson, draws patternistic birds, all in similar poses mostly in profile, against a white background. I prefer the National Geographic guide and its predecessor, the Golden Guide, because they show birds in a variety of more life-like poses, with more natural backgrounds giving visual hints about behavior and habitat, but I know others prefer straightforward comparisons of the identifying plumage characteristics. This is a matter of personal preference.

The colors are much more intense in Sibley’s new edition, and for the most part I like them better. I did notice that they seem duller and darker in dim rooms than in bright light, but that's probably a good thing for actual field use. He’s added more than 600 new illustrations, included 111 rare species that weren't in the first edition, and added more written information as well, and many of the pages include less white space and larger drawings. These are all significant improvements. I would have expected gull watchers to be especially pleased—the new Sibley includes 26 color illustrations of the Herring Gull alone, doubling the number of drawings and giving that one species a 2-page spread. I’m not at all an expert on gull identification, so have no way of evaluating those specific pages beyond that. 

My technique in evaluating a field guide is to look up the species I am most familiar with to see how they look to me. By this measure, the new one seems better than the first edition with regard to many species, but unfortunately, NO field guide, including the new Sibley, shows an important plumage of one of my favorite birds on the planet, the Black-capped Vireo. In this critically endangered species, males do not molt into full adult plumage until their third year. Year-old males sing, hold territories, and breed with any females who can’t compete for a fully adult mate. 

Black-capped Vireo
Year-old ("second year") male Black-capped Vireo
Being able to age birds in the field is useful for many reasons, and so it is disappointing to me that even the guide considered most comprehensive left this important plumage out. And his drawing of a first-winter female isn’t quite accurate, giving her a white rather than buff eye ring and making her breast more yellowish than buff. I’ve only spent about 7 days with Black-capped Vireos in my entire life, so I’m hardly an authority, but I did get Joe Grzybowski’s take on this, too—he’s been studying the species since the 70s. But again, no other field guide gets this rare bird quite right either.

The deal breaker for me about the new Sibley—the thing that would prevent me from buying it as my primary field guide—has nothing to do with the bird portrayals at all, but with the font size, color, and typeface. For some reason, the book’s designers went with a sans serif font for the main text blocks, even though studies show paragraphs are much easier to read in serif fonts. Even worse, the font is gray rather than black, and too narrow or small for me to read without a magnifying glass. My eyes are 62 years old. I showed it to my husband, whose eyes are a few months older than mine, and he just said something to the effect of “holy crap!” and handed it back. But my 28-year-old son didn’t see a problem at all. So I’d recommend that you pick up a copy and see if you can read it before buying it. (Ironically, this very blog suffers the same problem. I don't know how to adjust it via blogger, and have to set my browser settings to enlarge most web pages to read them. Sadly, one cannot do this with an actual book.)

Again, no field guide is perfect. Like spouses, there are flaws in every one. My advice? Pick the one whose flaws are least objectionable to you and stick with it. Then go birding.

(Sibley's electronic version of his field guide is, in my opinion, the very best out there. The Nat Geo one is almost as good--both provide all the information in the field guide, plus vocalizations, but Sibley's makes it easier to look up birds in the first place. His electronic version will be available later this year. I'm sure I'll be buying that too. I have to face it—I'm addicted. Fortunately, I haven't been so fickle where my real spouse is concerned.)