David Allen Sibley’s new book, “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” second edition, is a fine book. I like it. I have one. I use it.
Why? I like Sibley’s artwork, first of all. I do find the text helpful. I even like the range maps (more on that in a moment).
Artwork: Birding is a visual game, to state the obvious. I believe that most people choose a field guide based on their reaction to the illustrations. You either like the art/photos or you don’t. I don’t believe that attraction to text or anything else overrides reaction to the art.
My first field guide was the Peterson, eastern version. Of course, when I bought it there were but two real choices, Peterson and the “Audubon Land Bird Guide: Birds of Eastern & Central North America From Southern Texas to Central Greenland” text by Richard Pough, illustrations by Don Eckelberry, the title alone worth the purchase. Eckelberry drew his birds with more flare than Peterson. Eckelberry’s birds were shown in realistic poses; they had movement.
Peterson’s art won the day, however. As a beginner, I loved the little arrows that pointed to the critical field marks on his perfect profiles.
I never went to a bookstore to buy a field guide, and made a choice based on text. No. It’s how you feel when you open the book and look at the pictures.
Over the years I've acquired about three dozen other field guides, some general for North America, some east only, some west, and others for warblers, raptors, shorebirds, and seabirds.
I have these because I thought I would find them useful. In most cases they have been, if only now and then. The book in the bird box in the van, though, and the one on my desk, those are Sibley’s. Because I like his artwork.
Sibley’s painting pleases my eye. Plus, of course, his illustrations, the text, his maps, they all do the job.
Of the other books, one stands out: Crossley’s, that strange guide with pages of flying, perching, swimming birds. He has given each species a display page filled with photos of that bird in every conceivable pose. If you take photos, and come home with birds unidentifiable because you missed the best shot, Crossley likely has a picture — on purpose — that mimics yours, clueing your ID.
About those range maps: many book designers, when they come to range maps, choose to delineate nesting, wintering, permanent, and migration territories in soft pastel colors. They lean heavily on subtle shades of brown and red and green. I do not see those colors well, my eyes, like those of about six percent of American men, short-changed on red/green receptors. Those range-map colors cannot be told one from another, making the maps pretty much useless.
Sibley’s designer, however, or maybe Sibley himself, has chosen brighter, bolder colors with a greater degree of separation. Hooray for him. It’s another reason he’s my favorite.