It’s Back

October 2, 2023

A review by Rick Wright

Birds of Europe, 3rd Edition by Lars Svensson and illustrated by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström

Princeton University Press, 2023

480 pages, paperback

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 13038ED3

Because hope springs eternal, I spend an inordinate—and so far unrewarded—amount of time each summer looking for a Mediterranean Gull here in northern New Jersey. It’s bound to happen: As this species continues to rapidly increase in numbers and in range, one will inevitably find itself flying west across the Atlantic, not pausing until it lands, exhausted, on the beaches of Sandy Hook. You read it here first.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that I will be the one to find this stray. But whoever the lucky birder is, the first book they open on their triumphant return home will be this one: the new, third edition of what has repeatedly and rightly been called the finest field guide to any continent’s avifauna. On its first appearance nearly a quarter of a century ago, the “Collins guide” or the “Princeton guide” or the “new Swedish guide” (it’s never acquired a settled nickname on this side of the Atlantic) immediately rendered every other European bird book obsolete, and, like its North American counterpart, the National Geographic Guide under Jon Dunn’s wise tutelage, each succeeding version has been better and better.

This time around, the new edition of Birds of Europe, by Lars Svensson and illustrated by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström, has gained an entire signature of 32 pages of additional text and illustrations treating hitherto omitted species. More than 50 plates have been painted entirely anew for this edition, and new scenic vignettes for many species offer an evocative glimpse into their habits and habitats; Dan Zetterström’s Barrow’s Goldeneye in flight against a snowy mountain face while two shaggy Iceland ponies look on perfectly captures the romance of that oddly distributed duck. More of the almost 250 rarities and exotics in the appendix are illustrated than before, and a few more passerines are shown in flight (though sadly, the delightful Corn Bunting with dangling feet is now gone). Unfortunately, the browns and blacks of many of the images in my review copy are unnaturally dark, a problem not apparent in the original UK printing.

A review is no place for a full collation of this new edition with its predecessors, but even a quick riffling of the pages reveals just how thorough and how thoughtful the revisions are. The explosion of Great Egrets across much of western Europe, the sad continued decrease in Siberian Crane numbers, new Great Bustard sites in Germany, the steady push of Elegant Terns into western Europe, and the surge of vociferus Black-winged Kites into Israel, for example, are all accounted for, making this new edition indispensable for any birder eager to be as up to date as possible. The few omissions I have noted are trivial: the remarkable incursion of Siberian Accentors into the United Kingdom in 2016 is not acknowledged in the vagrancy code assigned the species, for example, and the account for Ruddy Duck probably understates the success thus far of efforts to eradicate that introduced American species from Europe.

For most birders, the latest taxonomic innovations—splits and lumps—are of vital interest; those, of course, are also the updates that go most quickly out of date. The species-level taxonomy here is identical to that in none of the standard world lists, but that matters little: this guide’s treatment of geographic variation, in the text and on the plates, is unfailingly so detailed and so clear that it is easy to allocate one or the other race described and depicted to a “new” species. Thus, for example, while the erstwhile Purple Swamphen remains unsplit here, it is a simple matter to identify the three European taxa currently recognized as distinct species; Western, African, and Gray-headed swamphens are all illustrated and described. The same is true of the old Mongolian Plover (now Tibetan and Siberian sand plovers), Green Woodpecker (now European Green and Iberian Green woodpeckers), and Little Green Bee-eater (now African Green and Arabian Green Bee-eaters). Similar prospective or controverted splits are almost always indicated by a dashed line on the plate and at least mentioned in the text.

Less helpful is the retention of a taxonomic sequence that does not always attempt to reflect more recent ideas about evolutionary filiations, a decision justified as enhancing “stability and familiarity” for the reader. But as George Sutton wrote years ago in the context of a similar taxonomic matter, “the human brain was made for work”, and I know very few birders indeed who do not find the brain work involved in learning about birds and their relationships worthwhile, even captivating. However questionable the decision to leave the sequence of families unchanged, the treatment in the last pages of the main text of Dark-eyed Junco and Indigo Bunting as New World warblers and Rose-breasted Grosbeak and White-throated Sparrow as New World blackbirds is clearly just a designer’s carelessness.

It is an eloquent measure of just how advanced birding has long been in Scandinavia that the two finest field guides to European birds—this, and Lars Jonsson’s beautiful Birds of Europe—are both translated from the original Swedish. (And an equally eloquent measure of David Christie’s skill is that he is the translator of both.) The front matter of this guide stakes a larger claim, though: the text is not just a rendering of the Swedish, it is a “translation and English adaptation” of its source. It is a shame that the market economics of bird book publishing does not permit an American adaptation, too. Leaving aside the orthographic Britishisms, there are occasional turns of phrase that might better be recast for an American readership. I am still not sure what this “shuttle” is that recalls the voice of a kestrel, and while the Great Gray Owl does have a distinctive silhouette, the comparison to a “steamship flue funnel” has never made sense to me.

For most birders in the New World, the greatest value of this field guide has always lain in the short essays scattered through the text. Nowhere else is there as good an exploration of hybridization in Aythya ducks, and the brief introduction to seawatching has no doubt inspired many who might never have thought of going to the beach in the rain. Unfortunately, in this new edition, the introduction to identifying Old World warblers has been severely condensed and lost all of the very helpful illustrations present in the earlier editions. All the same, the principles and pointers provided on nearly every page of this book make it still an essential addition to every birder’s bookshelf, whether they plan to bird Europe any time soon or not.


Rick Wright leads Birds and Art tours in Europe and the Americas for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. A widely published writer and sought-after lecturer, he is the author most recently of the Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America and the former Book and Media Review Editor for Birding magazine. Rick lives in Bloomfield, New Jersey, with his wife, Alison Beringer.