Book Review

Utah Birds 17(1): 49-51, 2003   2003 Utah Ornithological Society

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. David Allen Sibley, 2003. Alfred A. Knopf. 471pp. 431 color plates, 8 figures. Semi-hard cover. Cost about $20.00.

     Several years ago as a non-birding friend of mine and I examined the finely-woven and tightly constructed nest of a Gray Vireo he remarked with obvious admiration of the structure "Man, this guy is good!" As I examine this latest offering of David Sibley I say the same thing: Man, this guy is good! In a recent review of the 2000 Sibley Guide to Birds for this journal I said I thought that it wouldn't be topped. Well, in many ways it has been topped with this new guide. Never say never! Before this western guide came out I thought that there was no way I would like the smaller format and more restricted regional treatment. At the first glance these preconceptions flew out the window.

     Since this new guide is an outgrowth of Sibley's 2000 guide, it seems natural to compare the two. The big change is the size of the book: it is smaller. Quite a number of the reviews of the first guide were critical of the large size. Sibley responded by stepping to the plate and sending a homer to us fans. The western guide is in the same size class as the Peterson, Golden, Stokes, National Geographic and other popular guides. This new offering is 5.00 x 7.75 x 1.13 inches (43.6 cubic inches) whereas the "old" guide is 6.38 x 9.69 x 1.31 inches (81.1 cubic inches). This new guide is therefore about 43% smaller in total volume. The weight was shaved by 50% from 42 ounces to 21 ounces (1200 to 590 grams by my scales). This means it can now fit in most field jacket pockets, glove boxes, etc. It also just feels better in the hands and seems easier to handle and thumb through.

     Another change is of course, as the title says, the regional treatment. It covers western North America from the western edge of the Great Plains from Mexico north through Canada. As a result there is a decrease in total number of species treated (703 vs 810) but most all eastern North American species regularly occurring in the west are treated. Therefore, you don't have to worry if fall plumaged Blackpoll and Bay Breasted Warblers are in the book as you puzzle over such possibilities some September in the shade trees at Fish Springs.

     Yet another change is in the range maps. I think they are been improved. The cover jacket states that 110 regional experts were consulted. This process added much additional detail that no one person could possibly have contributed. Whereas the 2000 guide used a four-color format to illustrate seasonal status (breeding range, migratory range etc.) plus green dots for extralimital records, this guide uses a fifth color (green) to illustrate rare but regular migratory ranges and still retains the green dots for extralimital records. Only the rarest of species lack maps (e.g. Pine and Cerulean warblers). It is fun to look through the maps. From them, one can see that birders in Utah should look carefully at all the medium white terns they see to make sure an Arctic Tern isn't slipping through.

     This guide, like the 2000 guide, opens with an Introduction (7 pages) covering birding in general (equipment, finding birds, and learning to identify birds), variation in appearance, molt and plumage, learning songs and calls, finding rare birds, extinct species, birding ethics, and conservation. Within this section, the discussion on variation in appearance receives the largest treatment (nearly 3 pages) for good reason I think. Many of us, as we learned birds, were not adequately alerted to this aspect of bird field identification by the available field guides. Sibley is alerting all of us how this variation must be considered in determining a bird's identity. The next section is a brief two-page key to the species accounts that follow a bit later. This is followed by a valuable discussion of bird "topography".

     The vast bulk of the book is comprised of the species accounts. Here, Sibley appears to have used essentially all of the original wonderfully done illustrations. Therefore, as in the 2000 guide, subtleties of shape and proportion are captured by Sibley's fine eye and hand and given to us. Generally two species are presented on each page as in the 2000 guide. For some groups, notably buteos and gulls, one species per page may be presented. On just a few occasions three species have been illustrated on one page. The sequence of species generally follows that of the American Ornithologist's Union and American Birding Association. A check with a ruler shows that even though the dimensions of the book are smaller the individual illustrations are the same size (or nearly so) as the 2000 guide. This indicates that there was considerable effort made toward the efficient use of space. A good editorial touch is the division of species on each page by a fine black line. Each account contains brief text to the left of the illustrations on various pertinent aspects of the species' abundance, habitat, range, behavior, comparative differences from similar species, and voice descriptions. Measurements of length, wing span, and mass in U.S. and metric units are given. The Range maps are placed under the text. The illustrations include small figures of the bird in flight showing dorsal and ventral views. Occasional additional small figures illustrate behavioral traits such as tail wagging in phoebes. There are typically two to four main illustrations per species although some species may have more (there are 13 for Dark-eyed Junco). As in the 2000 guide, the main illustrations are arranged from the top of the page down from the more subdued or cryptic first year and female plumages to the generally more easy-to-identify breeding (alternate plumage) male. Key field marks and/or combinations thereof are pointed out by thin lines and a bit of text. Another feature that I liked retained from the 2000 guide is the placement of summary plates at the start of each family. This allows the user to quickly examine the family as a whole and is useful when working with a distant bird or when trying to grasp the gestalt of the various species comprising a family. Each family also receives a brief discussion. Sidebars are sprinkled throughout the book. These generally cover subspecies (Canada Goose, Merlin, etc.) and variations of plumage but may discuss other topics such as feeding habits of rails and sandpipers, sandpiper habitat segregation, thrasher vocalizations and so forth. The regular index is followed by a "quick index". The inside front cover is illustrated with bird topography and the range map color key and the inside of the back cover is printed with a map of North America.

     In examining the accounts a few more key changes are apparent. The voice descriptions have been shortened and more text has been added communicating to the user a suite of key information useful in the identification process. The opening sentence for virtually all species is a brief statement of the species' abundance and habitat associations. Such statements as "Common in brushy patches within open forests or in forest clearings" for Dusky Flycatcher or (and I love this one) "Uncommon and local on rocky arid hillsides with scattered jumpers, oaks, or mesquite and patches of bare ground in between; stays within foliage of low shrubs" for Gray Vireo are wonderfully concise and helpful and add considerable value to the book as a field guide.

     Try as I might I can't find much to quibble with in this field guide. Some of the colors seems a bit too bright (as in red of the Brown Thrasher), the Clay-colored Sparrow seems a bit too dark still to my eye, and I am still not sure I like the head shape of the male Hepatic Tanager. In my favorite stomping grounds where I am most familiar with the finer points of bird distribution (northern Arizona and southeastern Utah), I find a few small gaps in the range maps. None of these gaps are glaring and considering that this region was until recently one of the most poorly known regions of North American, quite understandable.

     Whether it is the form of an Olympic runner, the evocation of a well-cast paragraph, a fine painting or a well-designed car, bearing witness to competence is a pleasure. This new birding book from David Sibley is indeed a pleasure as a practical and sturdy field reference, an example of good formatting and a piece of art. He and the team of Chanticleer Press have put together a fine product. They clearly listened to the feedback from users of the 2000 guide and incorporated this into a new guide that will have great utility for field use by anyone interested in the identification pf North American birds. It deserves space in every nature enthusiast's field pack.

Chuck LaRue, 3525 W. Lois Lane, Flagstaff, AZ 86001. Email: ringtail@flagstaff.


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