The Sibley Guide to Birds

Image of The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition (Sibley Guides)
Release Date: 
March 11, 2014
Reviewed by: 

“For many The Sibley Guide to Birds will become the first point of reference.”

This is not a typical book review. The reviewer should generally not be an active participant in any way other than as a critic of the book’s success in achieving various criteria. But in this case, using the book as the guide it’s intended to be required a sort of field test, so the review is highly personalized.

I was a neighbor of Roger Tory Peterson, the author and illustrator of a long-lived series of field guides—to birds, then to trees, mammals, shrubs, etc. But he was best known as the bird man. In fact, he looked a bit like a penguin. I had and used those guides as much as I used my thesaurus and dictionary. But I wasn’t an avid birder. My mother was. When David Sibley published his Guide to Birds 14 years ago, it was a natural Christmas gift for her. She loved it.

I suppose I’d be described as an occasional casual bird watcher. As such, this winter I had two tiny birds attacking my suet feeder with gusto. Smaller than the chickadees, tufted titmice, and sparrows that are there at the seed feeder daily, I was frustrated in getting a proper look at one of them. Finally, one landed on the deck below my door, and I could see a yellow patch on its crown. Aha! An identifier. From the size, I thought perhaps a pine siskin. So I picked up the second revised and expanded edition of Sibley.

Alas, on page 579, there were seven illustrations of the bird but none showed the crown. There were three side views: adult, adult, and yellow adult. Very pale gray small type captions required a magnifying glass and none mentioned a yellow crown though yellow in varying degrees is common in some pine siskins.

The other four illustrations were of the bird in flight. After further study with magnification, I saw that the tiny hairline symbols in the equivalent of six point type were male and female symbols. In other respects, I suppose that those tiny, quick birds might have been pine siskins but I’m not sure. The illustrations are very good but I’d hoped for a reference to other similar birds and found none.

David Sibley has clearly spent his life so far learning about, studying, painting, and teaching people about birds, their visual characteristics, habitats, and variations. He is on top of scientific discoveries, reclassifications, and new information. The mere number of illustrations here is staggering.

As a revised and expanded edition, this book may be a necessity for the most rigorous birders, but will be a boon to those who are new to birding. It’s a larger volume than some will care to carry into the field but can stay in the car or at home and still be useful. Unlike the Peterson guides, this covers everything north of Mexico from the Pacific to the Atlantic—accounting for some of the bulk. It might have made sense to issue two related volumes—one for the east and another for the west.

Be that as it may, most birders will use whichever Sibley along with other references, Peterson, National Geographic, and others. For many The Sibley Guide to Birds will become the first point of reference. It’s a pity that the usefulness has been lessened by typography that seems more concerned with visual appearance than with readability.