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Review: Birds of Europe, 2nd Edition

April 16, 2010

It’s not an altogether inappropriate question to ask an American birder why they would even need a field guide to European birds.  After all, for the most part you’re unlikely to come across any of the regular species contained within the covers, and even those most likely to appear on our shores are more or less covered in every North American field guide.  And the short answer is you probably don’t.  An individual could have a fulfilling birding career without even considering anything far beyond North America and get by with one or more of the excellent field guides directly applicable to your backyard.

But there are certainly good reasons to look abroad too.  Birds don’t always stay where they’re supposed to and often end up in places that you’d never expect.  On the off chance that something turns up in your field of view that doesn’t match anything that Sibley includes, it’s nice to have the reference to solve the mystery.  And just like different North American field guides do different things well, offering different perspectives on difficult identifications, having multiple references can occasionally be the difference between a nailed down ID and the one that got away.

All this is a round-about way of saying that, for serious North American birders or those who aspire to be, having a field guide to a common vagrant source like Europe is something to consider.  Until recently, there were essentially two options for the American birder looking overseas.  The Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe was the default.  It’s tiresome in the way the old Petersons were, with plates and maps inexplicably separated by far too many pages and therefore not particularly useful for a birder for a place where so many of the species are new.  The option for more serious birders then, was Lars Jonsson’s Birds of Europe.  The Jonsson guide was harder to find, and despite the fact that it’s bulky with illustrations that, while beautiful, seem a bit too naturalistic for a proper field guide, it was by far the cream of the crop and stayed that way for a long time.

That is, until a guide simply known as “The Collins Guide” made its debut in the late 90s and blew the competition right out of the water.

The second edition of Birds of Europe, as the Collins Guide is known in North America, was recently released and as good as the first edition was, this one is better.  To say the book is merely comprehensive would be like saying the Atlantic is wet.  The information contained in the text, written by Lars Svensson, is far more extensive than in any guide North American birders would be familiar with.  Nearly every species is shown in multiple plumages and multiple ages.  Where appropriate, species are shown in multiple angles in flight and important behavioral and habitat clues are included. Nearly every square inch of every plate is devoted to giving you the information you need to identify even common species, most of it written in language that is accessible for birders of any stripe.  Where else can we learn that the Velvet Scoter has a “stretched neck when worried” or if you stumble upon an Ural Owl nest you should “leave quickly!”?

It’s this attention to detail that makes this guide a practical necessity for any serious North American birder.  Those species that are shared between Europe and North America are covered far more extensively than in any guide on this side of the pond.  The section of vagrant shorebirds (our regular birds) is as detailed as that for the regularly occurring birds and the gull section is far far superior to Sibley with nearly every plumage illustrated for even four-year gulls.  Both of these incredibly difficult groups of birds are taken on nearly as expansively as the excellent family specific books and are practically worth the price of Birds to Europe all by itself.

And did I mention the illustrations themselves are fabulous, striking a balance between the overly generalized style of Sibley and the overly detailed style of many of the illustrators of the National Geographic guide (for my money the two best illustrated field guides for North America)?  Artists Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom maintain an amazing continuity throughout the book.  I often find the differing styles in field guides with multiple artists distracting, but there’s none of that here.

Despite all of this, the book is appropriately sized for field use and small enough to fit in a (generously sized) pocket.  It’s odd to think that a book so packed with information would be field worthy, and this contradiction plays out in text size, which is admittedly small and occasionally difficult to read.  Frankly though, a little eye strain is a small price to pay to have such an incredibly useful and expansive guide at your fingertips and I wouldn’t give any of it up.  Though if I could change anything, I would have liked to see a slightly more sturdy cover on this book.  The paperback stock seems a bit flimsy and I could see it coming out worse for wear after a hard year in the field, though admittedly that’s less of a concern for North American birders for whom this will likely be a shelf book.

There’s really so much to like about Birds of Europe that you quickly run out of superlatives.  It’s simply the best field guide for its region and makes a run at being one of the finest anywhere.  There is no shortage of reasons to consider this guide.  Not only would it help a birder in North America be more than prepared for that inevitable first Mediterranean Gull in North America, but lovers of field guides will find it amazing for it’s own sake.  It’s as close to a must have as any guide out there now.

Thanks to Princeton University Press for sending me a review copy.

  1. April 16, 2010 8:11 am

    I missed my (first edition) Collins Guide with a real passion when I was confronted with the shorebird assembly at Hillman marsh near Point Pelee, Ontario. And the gulls? Oh dear…
    I would go as far as saying a birder at the coast of NE of North America will need this field guide nearly as much as a Sibley or National Geographic – out in the field.

  2. Nate permalink*
    April 16, 2010 8:45 am

    @Jochen- I couldn’t agree more. It’s really a fabulous guide and there’s not much more you can say.

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