Birder's Journal: Looking At a Handy New Guide

Robert Winkler
for National Geographic News
October 23, 2002

When it was published two years ago, The Sibley Guide to Birds, written and illustrated by David Allen Sibley, was an immediate success.

Anticipation was high because Sibley, a leader of birding tours and the son of a well-known ornithologist, had worked for 12 years on the guide and its 6,600 illustrations of 810 species of North American birds. He previously was the illustrator of Hawks in Flight and A Guide to Bird-Finding in New Jersey.

With so many illustrations, including flight poses and identifiable variations of species, The Sibley Guide is much larger than competitors such as The National Geographic Field Guide and Roger Tory Peterson's classic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America.

But size and a correspondingly hefty $35 cover price haven't hurt sales: about 700,000 copies of The Sibley Guide are in print. (In a nod to portability, Sibley Guide publisher Alfred A. Knopf will issue eastern and western versions of the book next spring.)

Although heavy on artwork—the highly variable red-tailed hawk, for example, required some 40 paintings—in other respects The Sibley Guide seems guided by the philosophy that less is more. Generally, it depicts only two species per page, with illustrations of each placed within a wide column, against a white background.

A brief description introduces each bird, and labeled pointers show the field marks of adults (in breeding and non-breeding plumages), juveniles, and distinguishable populations. Each column ends with a short paragraph on voice, and a range map.

The consistent depiction of the flying bird at the top of each column was an innovation for a North American guide, and Sibley peppered his roomy pages with nuances of identification that wouldn't have fit into a book of typical field guide dimensions.

Few people lug The Sibley Guide into the field—it's a reference better left at home or in the car, used to resolve identifications that elude a true field guide.

Tips for the Field

Having a good bird guide is one thing; using it well is another.

Like high-quality binoculars, a good guide is a sharp tool, but it won't be very useful unless you bring something to the equation. David Sibley's latest book, Sibley's Birding Basics, concentrates on the human side of field identification.

In this slim paperback, Sibley expands on the introductory sections to The Sibley Guide, describing his birding techniques and supporting salient points with a variety of illustrations, including diagrams, sketches, and full-color portraits.

Continued on Next Page >>


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