American Birding Podcast



The New Sibley

A review by Jen Brumfield

The Sibley Guide to Birds of North America, Second Edition, by David Allen Sibley

Knopf, 2014

599 pages, $39.95—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books SIBL2

I have 1,500 words to review the new, second edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds.

1,500 words. I’ve already used 20.

I don’t have enough space to review this guide properly. This is why:

It is impossible, in a humble review, to effectively describe this single game-changing and landmark field guide without a major pause and rewind to delve deep into the delicious, inspirational, and mesmerizing history of birding itself, and into the breathtaking and colossal evolution of the art of North American field guides.

Impossible to review without mentioning, somehow and everywhere, the sheer marvel of decades upon decades of scientific teamwork, passion, devotion, and obsession. The complete living and breathing ornithological history that pulses and throbs in the ink of every plate. One field guide, born of a collective effort to simplify and summarize the “unconquerable,” mysterious, ever-changing universe of bird study.

It is impossible, in mere paragraphs, to bestow full credit and respect on the deserving countless in the history of ornithology. The adventurous, the audacious, the curious, the stubborn, the persistent, the manic, the passionate, the teachers, all of whose astonishing contributions led and still lead to the creation of breakthrough field guides.

Laborious processes of inspiration and theory. Painstakingly skillful consideration of presentation and design. Sheer lifetimes and ligaments poured and strained into sketching and painting. Mind-boggling advances in photography. The grueling hours and months spent composing species account. Editing, and more editing (and more of that).

All of which climaxes in the printing and distribution of that astonishingly tangible object, a paperback. Compact guides that endeavor to encompass, in shorthand, an infinite amount of natural history information summarized to an extreme. Short, provocative paragraphs and stunning illustrations designed and packaged as tightly as possible onto tree-born pages that are bound with nylon thread into a masterpiece. The entire record and account of bird identification. In. A. Book.

Say it with me now: The field identification of birds—condensed into a mom-and-pop-friendly, visually stimulating, motivating and scientifically accurate, throw-it-in-a-fanny-pack, quick-reference CARRY-ON. Ages of  ornithological triumphs, setbacks, struggles, more triumphs, blood, sweat, and tears. In a coffee-table book. Sitting on a bookshelf. Lying on a car seat. A  scrolling app on your smartphone.

Highly-concentrated informational jackpots.

The works of Audubon and Fuertes.

Florence Merriam Bailey’s Birds Through an Opera-Glass, 1889.

Frank Chapman’s Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America, 1895.

Chester Reed’s Bird Guide, 1905.

Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to The Birds, legendary, 1934.

Chandler Robbins’s Birds of North America, 1966.

National Geographic Society’s first Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1983.

Since there’s no time to describe how these critical compilations utterly altered the course of our favorite pastime, hobby, and careers, we must leap, hurdle, and soar to the present and to what is arguably the leading field guide to the birds of the United States and Canada.

David Sibley’s Second Edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2014, fourteen years the junior of the first edition, published in 2000.

The Sibley guide is simply unbeatable in its layout, arrangement, and presentation. The “simple” choice to face all the birds in the same direction offers the utmost in direct comparison. The Petersonesquely clean and simple artwork is detailed and lifelike enough to touch the outer limits of hyper-realistic scientific illustration, but minimalist enough to urge the reader to focus on structure and essential field marks.

BINbuttonThe core theory of the Sibley guide, driven by the requirement for visual effectiveness, bespeaks a deep understanding of the psychology of how we learn. How we compare and contrast, and how we pay attention to detail. How we compare color and shape to first bias before finalizing our identifications.

Birders demand an immediate response. Identifications made by this crowd are mostly created in hurried excitement. Peterson, at the time, recognized the general public’s need—even requirement—for bird identification to be practical, summarized and interpreted in blocks of color and highly exposed shapes. Less attention to fine vermiculation, less attention to the exact placement of white feathers on eye arcs, and more attention to whether or not flanks are just gray from a distance or whether an eye ring looks white at 100 yards. Eighty years later, Sibley has seized those core educational elements of impression and structure and taken them to new heights.

The new Sibley offers up platter after platter of new riches. Over 600 new paintings and 111 rare species are added. Some new art of freshly included rarities appears to have been composed in a bit of haste (can you say Short-tailed Albatross and Brown-backed Solitaire?). Sibley may have been tired. With good reason. While the birder expects perfection from Sibley at all times, the throbbing nucleus of the guide is not harmed by illustrations that do not rise to the  level of his front-cover Magnolia Warbler.

The introductory texts climax in an extensive exploration of bird topography, seven delicious pages detailing feather placements, parts, structures, and patterns. To be read first, and not second, third, or later, if you desire to climb the pinnacle peaks of your personal relationship with birding and bird identification.

The species portraits are now 15 to 20 percent larger than in the first edition, pushing design and layout to the extreme of what most graphic designers are comfortable with without shouting mutiny. Both the artwork and the book owner massively benefit from the larger image size. The text size suffers a bit from this focus on the art. The new font is clean, but lighter and less bold than in the first edition. Yet the text of the species accounts is expanded to include more natural history details and more notes on voice, plumage characteristics and variation, and distribution. That is a win.

Over 700 maps have been updated. The highly controversial (earth-shattering?) green dots that in the earlier edition symbolized single records have now been relaxed from their tight, discriminatory record bias into far more generalized but more accurate swaths of color depicting the extent of wandering and rare occurrences on a broader scale.

Two fundamental and magnificent elements are retained from the first edition. One: the family comparison plates. Peterson would be tossing up high fives. So should we. Showing each species at a single scale, these quick reference plates are surely underrated and likely skipped over and forgotten by far too many birders, who could and should spend enormously beneficial time studying these “flash-guide comparison” pages: raptors in flight, sparrows, warblers, vireos and thrushes, hummingbirds and flycatchers and more. A Petersonian ingredient perfected.

A second gargantuan element: all species illustrated in flight. Identification of birds in flight continues to be the ultimate frontier. (The tock is clicking for a field guide to passerines in flight, Tom Johnson). From skulky Ammodramus sparrows seen for 1.258 seconds before they drop, to the against-the-deep-blue morning flight of Setophaga warblers, to the distant dots of stationary seabird/waterbird counts, to chickadees, shorebirds and grebes—all species are illustrated in flight, even if field marks and structure are shown less meticulously and more suggestively in these images. No other comprehensive guide attempts to offer such an extensive wealth of flight illustrations, encouraging the birder to familiarize herself with the activity that takes up 90% of birds’ lives. You may never see a Tufted Flycatcher in the United States. But two flight illustrations lie before you for reference, just in case you decide that that Buff-breasted Flycatcher flying away from you looked a titch too rich-cinnamon and dark-winged and your heart rate spikes.

Color. When this edition was released, the reviews came hot and heavy on blog after blog. Before most folks even got their hands on a copy, we were already prejudiced to look for color issues. The reviews focused on surprises. Namely, surprises of darkness. Indeed, darkness had fallen on the Sibley guide.

It’s true. Across the board, the colors are far richer. Vibrant to the point of true blacks being blacker (if you’re an Adobe Indesign and Photoshop guru or a press production specialist, you’ll understand why black is not actually black half of the time). Some crimsons are now blood red. Some chestnuts now chocolate. Mantle colors of gulls are more bluish than gray, and some yellows and greens are spiking the boundaries (see: Orange-crowned Warbler).

A CMYK balance in the next printing will calm the storm. Yet, overall, the richest of rich colors found on certain plates are hardly damaging to the core of the Sibley guide. Hardly. Ironically, they’re almost identical to birds viewed in the field under more extreme levels of light. Beginners likely won’t stumble over the blood-not-crimson Scarlet Tanager any more than they already stutter to figure out how in heaven’s name a female Red-winged Blackbird differs from 29 species of sparrow. (And there’s a plate for that. Page 514.)

There’s a myriad of reasons why the sport, career, love, hobby, and pastime of birding has skyrocketed from private club to internet sensation. One principal explanation is the evolution of the field guide. Interpreting bird identification in explainable, logical and tangible form—to the masses. Sibley is doing it very, very right.

14-3-03-08 [Jennifer Brumfield]

Jennifer Brumfield is a lifelong birder and natural historian. Her paintings and illustrations have been widely published, including several covers for Birding. A naturalist with Cleveland Metroparks, Brumfield guides pelagic trips on Lake Erie each fall. She is a frequent speaker at birding festivals.

Recommended citation: Brumfield, J. 2014. The New Sibley [a review of The Sibley Guide to Birds of North America, Second Edition, by David Allen Sibley]. Birding 46(3): 65.