Book Review: Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition

Review by Brooke McDonald

Sibley Guide Second Edition

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.

SIbley orange crowned

This is a scanned image from the book. The lime color of the warbler reflects that shown in my review copy.

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.

Sibley bean geeseOne 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.

Sibley leach'sUnfortunately, 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.


Sibley Guide Second Edition


The Sibley Guide to Birds: Second Edition

by David Allen Sibley

Alfred A. Knopf, 2014

599 pages

<< Preorder at Amazon



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Dan Andrews January 28, 2014, 09:34

    That settles it for me then. I’ll wait till second, or later, printings. That’s what i did with the first edition because of the colour plates, and I have no problem waiting again. Sibley must be heart-broken that his plates have been poorly processed again.

    • Laura Kammermeier January 28, 2014, 09:47

      We agree, it is unfortunate if the printers gooned up the first run of his excellent work. We put a word out to the publisher asking if the entire print run was like this but did not hear back. We’ll update this space if we hear anything.

      Thanks for writing.

      • David Sibley January 31, 2014, 17:18

        Hi Brooke, Laura, and all,

        I wanted to respond to assure you that all of us who worked on this book – the editing and design team at Scott & NIx, the production team at Knopf, the printer, and I – take color reproduction very seriously, and the color was carefully monitored through the whole process. The color proofs that I saw last fall looked great, and the colors in the finished book are, in my opinion, much better than the first edition (and much better than the scans that are included above). It’s not perfect, no book ever is, but I am very pleased with it.

        As soon as I learned of Brooke’s description of the colors being so far off I got in touch with her and asked her to send her review copy to me (at my expense, and with a replacement on the way). If there was a problem with some copies we needed to know right away, to figure out how extensive it was and how to fix it.

        I have now compared the two copies and I am relieved to say that they are essentially identical. Apparently Brooke and I simply have a difference of opinion. There is a fairly dramatic contrast between the colors of the first and second editions. I would describe the new printing as rich, deep colors and excellent detail, on bright white paper, and the first edition actually looks washed-out in comparison. It’s possible that some will find the new colors too dark, or it may just take some getting-used-to after using the first edition for years.

        The bottom line is that overall the colors look good to me, and therefore we aren’t planning any big changes in the next printing. But you don’t have to take my word for it. In about six weeks the book will be on sale and you can all look at it and judge for yourselves.

        Happy Birding,

        • Laura Kammermeier February 2, 2014, 09:34


          I’m really glad you looked into this issue for us – thank you! One thing revealed by this review is the mad interest in your updated field guide by legions of fans, many of whom would buy it with or without a color issue, and some who would have bought a first AND a second printing. You are truly a master, and your work speaks for itself.

          I also thank Brooke for her honest and objective review. Such objectivity is sorely lacking in many blogger reviews and I’m grateful for her time and effort.

          We look forward to watching the success of the second edition of the Sibley Guide to Birds.

          Thanks to all.


      • Brooke McDonald February 2, 2014, 12:35

        Dear Mr. Sibley,

        Thank you for rushing a new copy to me. I’m pleased to say that the plates in the new copy are brighter and clearer than the plates in my review copy.

        The storm-petrels, in particular, have a definition that was lacking in the book that I reviewed. The reds are less sanguine, the olives are less muddy, and the browns and blacks are less oppressive.

        The new copy is a very nice book that I will be happy to use in the field.

        As a postscript to my review, I suggest that readers look at copies in the bookstore and select a copy that they like.



  • Timothy Barksdale January 29, 2014, 20:26

    Thanks for your review Brooke.

    But color is truly only one factor in David’s work. His shaping of the birds is so far above anyone else, that I always recommend his books. The first edition of “Sibley’s” was the first “field” guide I wanted to take to bed and fall asleep with, just as I had done as a kid with Roger Tory Peterson’s Eastern Field Guide to the Birds. I want to gift a group of kids I am about to produce a show about with this book. So they can also note the color differences – or not- and take that into their young minds as they continue to develop a birders eye.

  • Carla Bregman March 15, 2014, 15:55

    The illustrations in the new Sibley’s are in general printed too intensely. I’m talking about the book that I received March 14th, not a pre-issue, review copy like Brooke McDonald reviewed. The shading in the brown and black areas of the birds has been lost; those areas totally lack contrast. Brown and black areas are so intensely/densely printed that resolution has been greatly diminished and will make birds harder to identify in the field. The dark images for most, if not all, birds are lacking in definition and appear almost cartoonish. Yet, the color rendition of other colors (bright colors like scarlet, blues, and pinks)has not enhanced (or made more accurate) by this too-dark printing; these colors are too saturated, too dull. For example, the scarlet tanager looks drab instead of brilliant in the new edition. The same thing goes for most of the hummingbirds, warblers, and even the trogons! Those birds were so beautiful in the first edition; now they look drab and uninteresting. A side-by-side comparison of the Java sparrow (the same painting in both editions) between the first and second edition shows a bright red bill in the first (as in real life) and a rust-colored bill in the second edition. This breath-taking, cute bird is made to look boring in the second edition. Some reviewers have said that the fainter, smaller font of the text is the major problem with the second edition. I disagree. The poorly-rendered illustrations are the major problem, a huge problem, a deal-breaking problem. I think the too-dark, drab images in the second edition do a disservice to the birds, to birders using this manual, and to Sibley. The renderings are just not accurate. I don’t blame Sibley for the poor production of the images (most are the same images that looked great in the first edition); I blame the printer. I want my money back or a replacement when a new, revised printing comes out. I am so disappointed!

  • William March 26, 2014, 22:57

    I think this is a masterpiece and certainly the best field guide produced covering the birds of North America, but it is a flawed masterpiece. While this is heartbreaking both flaws i.e. the poor color renditions and the difficult to read text, could easily be fixed in future reprints.

  • Steve N. G. Howell August 16, 2014, 17:05

    Undoubtedly, in terms of concept and content, the Sibley Guide is the best guide out there for most birders in North America, although for beginners I think the Kaufman Focus Guide may be better, more user-friendly. HOWEVER, and this is a huge however, from the copies I have seen of the Sibley Guide revision (lots of them by now) I completely agree with Brooke McDonald’s review, which I thought was balanced and accurate. I have the greatest respect for David Sibley (his Birding Basics book is arguably the best bird book published in the past 50 years, and every birder should have copy – and re-read it from time to time, as I do), but my review of his revised guide would have been a lot shorter than Brooke’s. At the risk of mincing words: “the person responsible for the fine scale, semi-illegible text should be taken out and shot; the printer should be dropped into the deepest trench in the ocean; and the publisher should recall the books, pulp them, and do a reprint.” All the great, great information in the book is relegated to secondary when the design and printing are substandard.
    If it were a car, it would recalled as unsafe on the road, we wouldn’t drive it – why do we tolerate this sloppiness with bird books? If birders simply sit there and buy this product en masse and say it’s OK, our acceptance of mediocrity in the production of an (otherwise) excellent book sends a message that birders are undiscriminating and will buy any old thing. And so, the next book to come along will be even worse. In this day and age, surely accurate color reproduction (not to mention thoughtful design) should not be beyond the wit of humanity?
    Tip: before you buy a copy, check the Scarlet Tanager male, which should be named the Brownish-red Tanager in the copies I have seen. I sincerely hope this, and the faint text, can be addressed in the coming printings.

Scroll Up