Sibley's birding basics, Sibley field guides
Jerome A. Jackson reviews Sibley's Birding Basics, and Paul A. Johnsgard reviews The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Western North America.
Published: May 24, 2004
Sibley's Birding Basics by David Allen Sibley, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, 154 pages, $15.95|
Oh, how I wish I had had this book when I was a kid just getting interested in birds! Sibley's Birding Basics is the third volume in David Allen Sibley's trilogy. It is the smallest, perhaps a spinoff of the other two (The Sibley Guide to Birds and The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior), but in my opinion, it may be the most important.
Birding Basics is where birding begins and ends. It's about really getting to know -- to understand -- birds. It's about developing the ability to anticipate the presence of a bird, its behavior, its needs, its psyche.
Sibley tells the reader up front that the book is not about learning to identify specific birds, but rather about the process of identifying birds. Yet buried in the text are myriad gems that capture the essence of particular species. What a shame that the book has no index to allow readers to quickly locate the tips that are provided! A species index would have been a bit more icing on this scrumptious cake. Five blank pages are left at the end of the book for notes. They would easily have accommodated a species index -- and still will: You learn by doing, and creating your own index will reinforce the aids that Sibley provides.
But let's go back. What's in the book? Birding Basics includes 16 short chapters that focus on getting started as a birder, challenges in bird identification, how birds are classified, the value of behavioral and habitat cues in birding, understanding the vocal and body language of birds, and learning to see the details of soft-part colors and plumage and how plumage varies with season, age, wear, and molt.
Each chapter begins with a salient quotation from another writer, and each epigraph is well chosen -- but I found the words preceding the Introduction to be particularly meaningful: "A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but without a name it is simply a flower." The quotation, from In the Presence of Nature by Jim Wright and Jerry Barrack (Camino Books, 2002), sets the stage for Sibley's volume -- and tells us the greater reason why it is needed and important.
Moreover, the epigraph is nicely balanced by a final chapter on ethics and conservation. Together, this beginning and end can be summed up by what I have adopted as a "theme song" for my teaching -- a slight corruption of "To Know Him Is to Love Him," a song made popular in 1958 by a singing group known as the Teddy Bears. My version is "To Know It Is to Love It."
A bird or a bug or a flower without a name is just a bird, bug, or flower. But once we have a name for it, we begin to see how it differs from other "its" with different names -- how each is uniquely and intimately adapted for existence -- the "gee whiz" things about each. Once we have a name for something, there is a sense of ownership. It's "ours" and we love it and want to care for it. That's what this book is ultimately about.
Like Sibley's other guides, Birding Basics is profusely illustrated with his art. When I first picked up the book and thumbed through it, I was impressed by watercolor vignettes illustrating identification characteristics. While other guides mention such key features and use arrows to draw attention to them, Sibley presents his illustrations in pairs or multiples to clearly show the differences in plumages, soft-part colors, and body language that other books only hint at. But bizarre black-and-white and unusually colored plates puzzled me. What were these all about? Did Sibley intend for his readers to color in their own birds? Not at all, although that too is a possibility that would further learning.
Plates such as those of a Song Sparrow, Red-tailed Hawk, Blue-winged Teal, Western Sandpiper, and Short-billed Dowitcher (pages 84-89) are templates that clearly outline those regions in body plumage that are seen on birds and mentioned in field guides.
What is meant by the terms "mantle," "upper tail coverts," and "auriculars"? Other books show us with a single flat profile illustration of a generic bird, typically in the introductory pages. Sibley brings those illustrations to life, presenting multiple species in diverse positions, perched and in flight, doing the things that birds do.
Other plates show readers how individual feathers contribute to color pattern; how various groups of birds are similar and different in plumage characteristics; how plumage patterns can look different from different angles and under varying light conditions. Variations in bill, wing, and tail structure are sorted out and clearly labeled with terms that most birders might have skipped over in earlier text descriptions.
Did I find things I didn't like? Sure, but precious little. For example, Sibley perpetuates misuse of the term "mandible" when he refers to "upper mandible" and "lower mandible" -- although he redeems himself a bit by acknowledging that the upper mandible can be correctly referred to as the "maxilla," while the lower mandible is simply the "mandible." I have no problem with referring to these structures as "upper bill" and "lower bill," and these might be better for use in common parlance. But the correct anatomical terms are "maxilla" and "mandible." In spite of common usage to the contrary, "upper mandible" would technically refer to the upper part of the mandible instead of to the maxilla. The words "mandible" and "maxilla" refer to the lower and upper jaw in all other vertebrates and arthropods. Why should confusing different terminology be used for birds?
Sibley's Birding Basics brings promise of a new level of understanding and sophistication in birding. While the book's title implies a primer, and the introductory material inside the front cover refers to "getting started" as a birder, the volume is far too important to be singled out as an introductory guide for beginning birders. This is a guide for all of us. It reveals the real secrets of identifying birds. I've been a bird watcher since the age of eight and have taught ornithology for more than 30 years -- and I learned several new things from my first read and saw old knowledge in new light.
Jerome A. Jackson is Whitaker Eminent Scholar in Science at Florida Gulf Coast University, past president of the Association of Field Ornithologists and Wilson Ornithological Society, and author of many books and articles, as well as a longtime contributor to Birder's World.
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley, Knopf, 2003, $19.95 each|
Field guides are a unique breed of books. These days, new titles seem to appear like magic. On my office bookshelf I now have just over 100 books that qualify as field guides by size, non-technical approach, and an emphasis on outdoor species identification. One of my earliest is a 1921 edition of Frank M. Chapman's Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America. The most recent are The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley.
Interestingly, each of the Sibley guides is very nearly the same size and weight as the Chapman guide. The Chapman guide has considerably more pages (530), including several color plates by the ornithological painter Louis Agassiz Fuertes that in both quality and layout would be at home in any modern field guide, but most of the book consists of text and black-and-white illustrations. In many ways, field guides have evolved slowly during the past century, progressively deleting detailed plumage descriptions and data on migration, nests, and eggs, and ruthlessly eliminating all the sorts of basic information on bird biology that occupied the initial fifth of Chapman's book.
What has been added in modern field guides are wonderful range maps, better descriptions of behavior, and multiple color illustrations, showing every species at rest and in flight and documenting how plumages vary with sex, age, and race. Thus, "handbooks" like Chapman's have morphed gradually into modern field guides. These innovations have facilitated rapid field identification for personal pleasure rather than as part of a specific biological research project, and a vast market has emerged for identification guides that can be used easily by people who are not formally trained in biology.
Popular ornithology has thereby gradually been transformed from generalized 19th-century natural history activities such as egg- or nest-collecting, through traditional "bird-watching," which often involved long-term personal studies of one or a few species, to present-day "birding," where the emphasis is on rapid, long-distance species identification of every bird within view or hearing range. A modern field guide must, in my view, meet several criteria to attain these demanding needs: It must be compact, comparative, convenient, colorful, contemporary, and even consilient.
Unlike David Sibley's earlier Guide to Birds (Knopf, 2000), his two new books are compact enough to fit in a large pocket. There is no need for persons birding in the western Great Plains to carry both in order to make sure that any strays from either coast are covered. His eastern guide covers 650 species, and the western guide covers 750 out of about 800 total North American species, producing a broad species overlap in coverage. I noticed, for example, that all of eight western species that visit western Nebraska very rarely and are absent from Roger Tory Peterson's eastern guide are present in Sibley's eastern guide, and four out of six eastern forest species that barely enter eastern Nebraska are also present in his western guide.
Like David Sibley's earlier and much larger guide, the two-species-per-page rule still applies. The arrangement makes for a neat and consistent layout, but when there are four or five look-alike species (such as the Empidonax flycatchers or the small Calidris sandpipers), a multi-image comparison on a single page would be invaluable. Sibley's collective groupings of miniature images of related genera and species that precede his species descriptions are often too small to assist much in sorting out such similar species. Yet Sibley provides a plethora of visual information. His eastern guide has 37 images of seven Empidonax species, and the western one has 49 images of 12 species. By comparison, the National Geographic guide has 30 entire-bird images of 11 species, and Peterson's eastern guide has one image apiece of six species. It is hard to quibble when confronted with such visual wealth.
Additionally, there is a wonderful array of colored images of intraspecific plumage variations of each species, with every bird looking as if it has been painted from life rather than from study skins. Sibley has some of the mystical touch with watercolors that Fuertes had, simplifying and reducing feather patterns to their essence, but keeping the overall image wholly believable. Sibley doesn't waste valuable page space painting in branches or environmental backgrounds. One simply cannot fault Sibley's use of color and form, both critical elements of any field guide.
The range maps in the Sibley guides, like those in his larger comprehensive one, are excellent. A simple test is to check the indicated ranges of some currently expanding species, such as the Great-tailed Grackle and Eurasian Collared-Dove. And the latest AOU name changes are present. High marks here for being contemporary.
My application of the term consilient is somewhat based on that of E. O. Wilson's usage: namely, suggesting a unity and synthesis of present-day scientific knowledge. David Sibley's books are of course not scientific monographs, but they are good markers of the current highly developed state of field identification of birds, now aided greatly by improved optics, auditory aids, and computerized databases. Sibley has taken up the mantle of Roger Tory Peterson, who gave birth to the modern avian field guide in the 1930s and guided its development for more than half a century. I think that Roger would be pleased with the direction that David Sibley is taking it.
One final test on my field guides is whether I value them enough to be willing to spend the time needed to make my own notes on their pages. I thus can not only personalize them but also make them even more useful for rapid use, such as by color-marking page edges for locating certain sections easily. I suspect I will do that with my copies of Sibley. Edge guides have been under-exploited in bird field guides (but were used effectively in the American Bird Conservancy's guide All the Birds of North America) and should be considered for some future edition of these guides. The Sibley guides are so good that further editions are a dead certainty. As with the Peterson guides, I will likely buy every edition, whether or not I need it.
Paul A. Johnsgard is Foundation Professor of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the author of more than 40 books, including This Fragile Land: A Natural History of the Nebraska Sandhills (University of Nebraska Press, 1995) and Prairie Birds: Fragile Splendor in the Great Plains (University Press of Kansas, 2001).