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Review: The Sibley Guide to Trees

November 6, 2009

When I was in my last semester of college, in order to finish up requirements for a biology minor, I took an elective class called Local Flora.  The class focused mainly on identifying the common species of trees in the region and consisted mostly of walking around campus pointing those trees out.  At this point I should mention that the course was only two credit hours.  Besides that, though, it wasn’t as simple as it sounds.  Some time ago a far-sighted biology professor at my university decided to plant an example of every species of tree native to Missouri somewhere on campus, so it came to be that we did not have to go far to get a sense of the variety of northern Missouri.  It was fun, and I learned a lot.

Why is this anecdote relevant?  Well, the dirty little secret among many birders is that not all of us are well-versed in stuff beyond birds, and I regrettably count myself in that faction.  Sure there are those phenomenal naturalists that can switch from the finer points of woody shrub identification to a snap identification of that scurrying ground beetle down to family to discussing the molt pattern on that distant juvenile Cooper’s Hawk, but they are few and far between.  For most of us with day jobs and families it’s enough to get one aspect of the natural world down cold and call it a lifetime.  We’ll undoubtedly pick up snippets of the rest as we go, but it frequently and unfortunately isn’t anything that helps us understand the whole of the natural world in any really comprehensive way, the way we yearn to.  And besides, I’ve often found some of those other subjects, trees for instance, so overwhelming that it’s hard to know exactly where to start.

So it’s with no small amount of excitement that I welcome the new tree identification guide from David Sibley, patron saint of confused birders and naturalist par excellence.  Those familiar with Sibley’s essential bird guide will be at home here, and that’s likely the key.  One of the advantages of the Sibley Guide to Birds is the uniform way in which the species are presented.  All the birds are facing the same way and all are illustrated in flight the same by one master illustrator making comparisons between confusion species simple and accessible.  Compare this with Nat Geo’s hodgepodge approach or any of the photograph guides.  For my money, this makes Sibley’s bird guide my primary book for identification issues, and I’m happy to see this approach carried over to the tree guide in a way that makes it exceptionally user friendly.  Leaves are uniformly presented with bark texture, flowers and other identifying characteristics in a pleasing manner.  Range maps are carefully and accurately considered, and easy to read besides, making managing your expectations, which for my money is one of the most difficult parts of tree identification, simple.  It may partly be my familiarity with the bird guide that makes this format so appealing, but it’s nothing to take a walk outside and begin identifying trees, both native and exotic, without any background knowledge required.  That’s a notable achievement in itself.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this book, however, is that it makes me interested in the natural history of trees beyond the ability to identify a half dozen common species.  Sibley’s name has as much to do with that as anything.  The fact that he threw his weight behind a book like this lends it immediate credence in the eyes of those like myself who have enjoyed his bird book for so long.  You could maybe make the argument that that says as much about me as it does about the book, and you’d no doubt be right, but what is important is that a personal connection is made, rather than how it comes about.  If Sibley’s name is attached to what is a phenomenal field guide besides makes tree study, and the wider world of nature study generally, more attractive to those who before had blinders on to anything but birds, then that’s a great thing.  Something Sibley himself would endorse.

All I know is that my coffee table used to to be covered in bird books that I could pick up and flip through when I was feeling bored. Now there’s at least one tree guide there too, one I would not hesitate to give my full-throated endorsement.

  1. Matt Yawney permalink
    November 10, 2009 12:23 am

    Thanks for the review. I’ll have to check this one out. I had the opportunity to bird quite a bit with a friend who knew his flora very well. One of the cool benefits was his ability to predict what birds we might find based on the surrounding trees and plants. Also, when the birds weren’t active he would identify plants. I would love to get better at that myself.

  2. Nate permalink*
    November 10, 2009 11:55 am

    @Matt- This book is really user-friendly, and the benefits of knowing trees better to a birder is pretty obvious, as you’ve certainly seen. Sibley’s guides are really comfortable for me, and that’s part of the reason I enjoy this one so much. You should definitely check it out!


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