Book Review: The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition

The Sibley Guide to Birds, by David Allen Sibley
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
624 pages |$40 | ISBN 978-0-307-95790-0

untitledIn 2000, the birding world greeted the arrival of the revolutionary new Sibley Guide to Birds. Now, 13 years later, we welcome the long awaited updated second edition of our favorite field guide.
I arrived on the birding scene in 2007 (July 7th, to be exact). My first mentor recommended both “Sibley” and “Nat Geo,” which I first borrowed from the library, then purchased. Those early days meant heavy field guide usage, and while my mom used the first guide she could find, I gravitated towards Sibley, studying the illustrations with diligence. As I learned more, I realized how out-of-date the guide was and eagerly waited for the updated version, which I finally hold in my hands.
According to the front cover, the second edition of Sibley is “A completely revised edition of Sibley’s landmark guide, with more than 600 new paintings and 111 rare species added, new information on habitat and behavior, and more tips on finding species in the field.”  If anyone thought the Sibley Guide couldn’t get any better, they were wrong.
One of the first things I noticed was the darker, more vivid colors of the birds. That, in combination with the enlarged drawings, makes them even more beautiful and useful than ever. I’m reluctant to actually take this copy birding, as I’ve seen how the unrelentingly hot Texas sun has bleached out my previous two copies.
A small surprise:  I always blamed the off-white paper of the first edition on dirty, greasy hands touching the pages. It wasn’t until I saw the definitely white pages of the second edition and compared them to a barely-used page of the first, that I realized the paper was truly off-white. This is a very minor, but nice improvement, as the white pages make everything but the gulls really “pop”.
Evidently, I wasn’t the only Sibley user that found the green dots symbolizing “rare occurrences” of the first edition useless (and annoying!).  The new edition features green-shaded areas where occurrences may be “single or up to a few records per year.” Although we all know birds don’t read maps and show up in very unexpected places, this change will prove far more useful than the old dots.
Not only have the annoying green dots been removed, there are now brief notes accompanying the maps, about habitat, behavior food, nesting, and courtship, similar to those found in Nat Geo. Other notes, such as tips for owling, gull identification, and woodpecker drumming graphs have also been added. These are especially helpful for new birders, but anyone wanting to learn anything that might aid in finding and identifying birds may find a new gem.
Overall, the layout has been refined into a “cleaner” looking one, definitely an improvement over the old version, which I found kind of cluttered and closed in. Now it’s nearly as light and airy as the birds’ feathers featured within.
Naturally, every book has its cons. From a graphic design student’s perspective, the typography is a nightmare. While I appreciate the effort to simplify and lighten the layout, the thin sans serif typeface is difficult to read (compare the old edition’s text to the new, and read more here about the difference between serif and sans serif). Birders with poor vision will have to strain to read it, and without full sun (or overhead light), I found myself having to bring the book very close to my face. With a bird guide as widely-used as Sibley, I found it surprising that a more suitable typeface wasn’t chosen and foresee the next printing having a different, more easily read one.
A minor annoyance will be getting used to the change of bird family sequence to match the updated taxonomy. Although I fully support the change, I had a good laugh at myself, when I picked it up and tried finding the ducks, geese, and swans section by memory. With use, though, anyone who finds birds in a field guide by memory will be able to go back to that system.
With the exception of the typography, the second edition is only an improvement and refinement of the first. The added notes and illustrations should help birders identify birds with more accuracy and hopefully more easily and the pros will far outweigh any cons. Once again, David Sibley has given birders an excellent tool. (Although, could we get the next update in fewer than 14 years?)