Review by Brooke McDonald
It doesn’t actually matter what I say here, because everyone’s going to run out and get the second edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds the day it goes on sale. Undoubtedly, many of you have it pre-ordered.
However, I think you should wait for a second printing. Although the second edition improves on the first edition in some ways, production problems undermine its utility in important areas.
The new edition has illustrations of 930 species, including 53 exotics, and it boasts nearly 7,000 individual paintings. The 80 new species in this edition include rarities such as Smew, Greater and Lesser Frigatebirds, Greater Sandplover, Common Cuckoo, Common Swift, Loggerhead Kingbird, Nutting’s Flycatcher, White-crested Elaenia, Sinaloa Wren, Red-flanked Bluetail, and Common Chaffinch. Also included are illustrations of all of the species created by splits since the first edition, including such recent checklist additions as the Bell’s and Sagebrush Sparrows.
Other improvements include an expanded introduction, larger thumbnail illustrations at the beginning of each section, larger illustrations in the species accounts, and a checklist in the back. Most of the features of the first edition have been retained, such as the beautiful illustrations of bird topography in the introduction and the abundant illustrations of birds in flight. As in the first edition, the coverage of subspecies and plumage variations is unparalleled among North American field guides.
The enlarged thumbnails at the beginning of each section are excellent, but the guide is sometimes organized in a way that makes it hard to compare similar species. For example, in the previous edition, Reddish Egret was on the page facing Little Blue Heron and Tricolored Heron, but in the new edition, Reddish Egret is facing Gray Heron, while Little Egret and Western Reef-Heron are facing Little Blue Heron and Tricolored Heron.
The species accounts in the new edition retain the style and organization of the old edition. As in the previous edition, the sparrows are some of the few species shown in frontal view. Most of the birds face serenely off to the right, comfortably surrounded by white space.
The new version is almost 80 pages longer than the old one. If you don’t have a problem with the size and weight of the first edition, the second edition shouldn’t intimidate you. The bound size of the books is almost identical, and the difference in weight is about 4 ounces. The binding feels flimsy, and my review copy showed signs of wear after a few days. Some editorial lapses are evident, and there were several errors inside the front cover, including two brutal misspellings.
One of the biggest complaints about the first edition was the shortage of text, and the new edition has more text devoted to identification features, similar species, abundance, habitat, and foraging behavior. Although there is more text in the new edition, I found it difficult to read. The print in the first edition is small, but I have never found it hard on my eyes. The introduction and much of the body text in the new edition are set in a slender, 8-point, sans-serif type, and some of the text in the species accounts is even smaller. Given the abundance of older people (and older eyes) in the birding community, some of the white space on the plates might have been sacrificed to make the print darker, larger, and more legible.
These issues, including the weight and the small print, would not prevent me from recommending the book, but the plates are a deal breaker. Even though there is more descriptive text in the new edition, using Sibley in the field still means relying on the accuracy of the plates.
I own one of the early copies of the first edition in which the rusty tones are oversaturated. This problem was corrected in later printings, but it didn’t affect the usefulness of the book.
Unfortunately, the first printing of the second edition, at least in the review copy I received, suffers from similar color problems: many of the birds are much too dark, and it does affect the usefulness of the book. The heads on most of the Anser geese look almost black, the storm-petrels are anonymous dark shapes, the noddies are not differentiable, the empids are a muddy dark olive, Orange-crowned Warbler is lime green, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak looks positively macabre.
When/if a color-corrected version becomes available, this will undoubtedly be one of the reference standards for North America, but so many of the plates in this printing are so significantly affected by this problem that I cannot recommend the first edition at this time.
Editor’s note: Alfred A. Knopf Publishers provided a review copy of this book.
Brooke McDonald is a technical editor for an environmental consulting firm in Northern California. In her free time she birds, gardens, plays with her dogs, and researches an obscure Calvinist sect.
by David Allen Sibley
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
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***Book Review: Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition,