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Review: The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition

March 3, 2014

David Sibley could have sat on his laurels. He would have been entitled to. With the publication of the original Sibley Guide to Birds, heretofore called the first edition, he set an entirely new standard for field guides, not just in North America, but arguably for the world.

Pre-first edition, you had your Peterson partisans, your Golden Guide groupies, your Nat Geo disciples, but after? There was only the Sibley. While the other guides, particularly National Geographic’s offerings, continue to have avid followers (including me for what it’s worth), the Sibley was the first guide that everyone had to have.

And this was for good reason. Sibley’s drawings were at once elegant and fantastically useful. The text was spare and distilled to the essential points. Each species included, by virtue of it being created by a single artist, existed not only as a tool for identification but within the context of every other. There was no accounting for illustrator style or preferred angle. Every bird was painted in the same style, in the same position, so as to make comparison and contrast simple. And no other book had every single species a birder is likely to come across so true to life. It was considered for good reason to be a masterwork.

131120_SGTB_coverSo nearly 14 years later comes David Sibley’s long awaited second edition, and of course the question of whether he can possibly top such an essential guide is foremost on everybody’s mind. The answer is, for the most part, that he does. Instead of just adding the new species and various taxonomic changes that have ballooned the AOU and ABA Checklists over the last several years, Sibley has taken the opportunity to make some wholesale changes to the book itself. Most obvious of which is that the artwork is significantly bigger. Additionally there is expanded text having to do with habitat preferences and other noteworthy clues for identifying birds. More information is always better in my opinion, and Sibley has done a nice job incorporating that additional, and valuable, information along with the larger images without overwhelming the reader or making the pages too cluttered.

Content wise, there’s a great deal more on subspecific variation in this edition. Sibley hews to the line he established in the first edition of not including subspecies names, but rather illustrating examples of regional variation where appropriate, and these are expanded in the second edition which includes many wholly new illustrations of field identifiable subspecies that were not given space in the first edition.

An additional 111 new species are included in the second edition that were not included in the previous one. Many of these species are strays to the ABA Area, making Sibley’s new guide nearly as useful as Nat Geo when it comes to the identification of vagrants. The Old World Calidrids are particularly well represented here. Additionally, if you’ve spent any amount of time with the old Sibley — and who hasn’t? — flipping through the pages is like an easter egg hunt. More, several illustrations have been “touched up” to better reflect the bird in the field. I was surprised by how quickly I was able to find some of them, so internalized is my “Sibley-sense” over the years. There are also additional illustrations of hybrids, juvenile birds, and various useful angles (like many alcids painted “flying away”) that add to the user’s ability to put a name to birds.

Maps are largely unchanged, though Sibley has thankfully done away with the “green dots” representing “vagrant-records-but-not-really” that seemed to serve only to confuse people. Those birds with limited ranges are illustrated with pop-outs of their range rather than a white expanse of the entirety of North America as before, another positive change.

Sibley’s representations of birds are nearly uniformly excellent. However, some of the pelagic species seem just a tiny bit off in a way I can’t quite put a finger on. The illustration of the dorsal view of an adult Short-tailed Albatross in flight on page 57 seems a bit strange to me, but the angle is undoubtedly a difficult one for an artist. Your mileage may vary, of course, and I had no such visceral reaction to any other paintings.

A bit has been made of the color reproduction in this edition as compared to the first edition. It’s clear that the colors are darker – the publisher calls this “richer” and I’m not inclined to disagree. This is more apparent for some species rather than others. Birds that are primarily red, for instance, like Northern Cardinal and, particularly, Scarlet Tanager come off a fair bit darker than you’d see them in life. Blacks and browns are very dark; there’s no getting around it.  While some of the paintings are rather shocking at first glance it does not seem to be effect the ability of the reader to discern details on all but the most ebony-hued birds.

For those species for which subtle shades are more important, like gulls, the coloring here seems accurate enough. And for most species the richer hues are a nice improvement over the somewhat washed out first edition. Color shading may also be more noticeable because the page color in this edition is white as opposed to the subtle cream of the first. This change does make the paintings appear more contrasty, for better of for worse. Birders may want to flip through a book before buying to see if this is going to be a problem. In my opinion it should not impair use of the book, but that’s a decision that the individual purchaser is going to want to make themselves.

There are a couple minor typos, in the Key to Group Accounts on page xxv and in the Snowy Owl account. Black-tailed and Heerman’s Gulls are mislabeled in the gull group account. These are minor, not likely to impact user experience (though the gull thing did confuse me for a minute or so), and will undoubtedly be cleared up in the second printing if not before.

In short, the things that Sibley has always done well are emphasized here. There is no field guide illustrator in North America better able to capture the subtleties of bird identification, the shape and feel of a bird, than David Sibley. The larger paintings fill the page well and the text, though sparse, is informative and useful. If you like the Sibley style, you will not be disappointed here and in most ways he has noticeably improved on what was a spectacular first edition.

Birders should be very happy with what he’s done here.

Thanks for Knopf for providing me with a review copy.

  1. Greg Seymour permalink
    March 16, 2014 5:34 pm

    I would say the colors are more than a bit off. Oranges and reds in particular are way off the mark. I have only had the book a few hours and am aghast at the dull brownish of the brilliant orange of male Baltimore Oriole and of the American Redstart. As these inaccuracies seem to be the same part of the palette, it is only reasonable to conclude that the publishing process is to blame. Audubon did better with Havell 170 years ago than Sibley has done with Knopf. Knopf should be ashamed.

  2. Someguyinthewebs permalink
    March 25, 2014 1:41 pm

    Look at the pictures of the common Robin, then tell me they’re “just a bit off.”

    It does a huge disservice to Sibley’s original paintings and to every birder who depends on color accuracy for precise identification of every species.
    I work at a distribution warehouse and we’ve already received several complaints from customers as well as requests to return the book.
    We are even bracing ourselves to possibly return our entire stock (over 1,000 copies) to the publisher.
    This is no matter to simply shrug off.


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