BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at The Sibley Guide to Birds

[Author's Note, August 2016 – Sinc this review, a second edition of this guide was published, along with smaller guides to Eastern and Western birds.]

So, the rave reviews have all been written, and David Sibley – a birder, of all things! – has emerged as a genuine media star. But the hype and excitement are about over, now that Sibley’s new and monumental field guide has been out for a year. Perhaps it’s time to calm down and take a second look at The Sibley Guide to Birds to see how successful it is in leading birders to correct field identifications.

A similar article about the third edition of the National Geographic’s field guide appeared a couple years ago (, discussing the changes in the new edition and how useful they are. Back then, Geographic was acknowledged as the only accurate and comprehensive guide for birders to rely on, but now that assumption is no longer true.

So, if your pockets are big enough and you’re in top physical condition, should you try to lug the massive Sibley guide into the field with you, or will you be missing something by opting for Geographic’s more modest proportions? Start by asking yourself a few basic questions:

Is it true you can’t tell a book by its cover? No matter, since neither guide features an inspiring bird on its cover. Geographic’s Bald Eagle is an impressive enough bird, but, let’s face it, too often this species has become a ubiquitous cliché. And Sibley’s choice of a Red-tailed Hawk hardly motivates the reader to look inside, considering how often birders routinely see this raptor along the road — and so seldom step on the brakes.

Are songs and call notes an important part of your birding? If not, they should be, and this is where much of Sibley’s text is devoted. The vocalizations of virtually every species in the book are covered in comprehensive detail to an extent far surpassing any other field guide. (I should add, however, some of Sibley’s transliterations are difficult to interpret and others do not ring entirely true.)

Do you ever have trouble reading maps? If so, stick to the range maps in Geographic, which are far more accurate. To say the least, Sibley’s range maps are puzzling, given the overall quality of this guide. To be blunt, how can such a good book have such bad maps? I have not studied all of them for species found in Minnesota, but some random samples show that perhaps only half of them are accurately shaded within this state’s borders. Worse, its enigmatic system of dots for “locations of rare occurrence” is not explained and entirely fails to be logical, consistent, or accurate. Even if you’ve never had trouble reading maps before, you’ll have trouble with these.

Before looking away in dismay, however, don’t avert your eyes entirely from the bottom of the page where Sibley’s range maps appear. Next to many of them are paragraphs on a variety of useful topics: e.g., elaboration on field marks, molt, behavior, and geographical variations.

Are you headed to Alaska? A good way to minimize those severe weight restrictions on that flight to Gambell is to leave your Sibley at home, since it excludes a lot of North American rarities, like those which regularly stray to Alaska — which, by the way, are found in Geographic. Or just on a local level, you can forget about Sibley if you want to look for a second-state-record Smew or a realistically potential first-state-record Common Crane. Neither species is included.

Do you like to actually read or just look at pictures? If the former is true, you’ll still need Geographic which features more actual text to explain which field marks in the paintings to concentrate on. While the great quantity and logical arrangement on the page of Sibley’s illustrations are superior to Geographic’s with most species, the text is typically limited to brief captions accompanying the paintings. In most cases, it is unclear when these captions point to diagnostic field marks, and there are many illustrations without any captions.

Still, there are certainly lots of pictures in Sibley, typically five to ten or more for each species, compared to only two or three in Geographic. Sibley’s illustrations are spread over 515 pages, 77 more than Geographic, and the page size is larger. The content is overwhelming, at times distracting: there are almost too many pictures. Every species actually has at least two flight pictures, even the passerines, even though most of these don’t show anything one would ever use in the field. And, as good as all this book’s illustrations are, superior in most cases to those in Geographic, some are just too small — raptors and water birds especially.

To be fair, Sibley is more than just paintings, and there is some text beyond the vocalization sections and captions. Several side-bar essays are included on the identification of some difficult groups: i.e., white herons/egrets, accipiters, buteos, falcons, peeps, phalaropes, gulls, fall warblers, trilled songs, tanagers, Rose-breasted/Black-headed grosbeaks, Indigo/Lazuli buntings, meadowlarks, orioles, and Red Crossbill. It would have been nice, though, to also include essays on flycatchers and sparrows.

So, specifically, what birds does Sibley cover more accurately than Geographic? Is Geographic better on anything? And are there any species which both guides fail to adequately address?

As pointed out in the Hindsight article a couple years ago on the Geographic field guide, its third edition still has several shortcomings. However, at least with the following ID points, to clear up the confusion and find more accuracy, put your Geographic aside and turn to Sibley instead:

• Bill colors of Western and Clark’s grebes

• More natural shapes and postures of herons and egrets

• Differences between Snowy Egret and Little Blue Heron

• Ross’s Goose bill

• Bill shape of Blue-winged vs. Cinnamon teal

• Female Redhead vs. female Ring-necked Duck

• Female scaup and goldeneyes

• Wing patterns of ducks in flight

• Virtually all the raptors, especially the buteos (e.g., there are 6 Red-tailed Hawk

   illustrations in Geographic, 39 in Sibley!)

• Differences between the “peeps”

• Juvenile plumages of Bonaparte’s and other small gulls

• Most gulls in flight

• Hybrid, “white-winged”, and “black-backed” gulls

• Most of the flycatchers

Oporornis warblers

• Virtually all the sparrows

• Longspurs

• Immature male Rose-breasted Grosbeak

• More natural-looking finches

• Redpolls

The Sibley guide would also be the preferred choice when dealing with a few other birds the Hindsight article on Geographic did not discuss:

• Swans (OK in Geographic, better in Sibley)

• The juvenile Sora’s white trailing edge on the secondaries (! – certainly some

   flying Soras have been mistaken for Yellow Rails)

• Jaegers (far better coverage in Sibley)

• Thrushes (OK in Geographic, better in Sibley)

However, as good as it is, Sibley doesn’t solve all of Geographic's problems mentioned in that article. Both guides leave something to be desired when it comes to these points:

• The close similarity between subadult Franklin’s Gulls and adult Laughing Gulls

• The potential for confusing a juvenile Horned Lark with Sprague’s Pipit

• How bright green and yellow fall Tennessee Warblers really are

• The unique combination of the Chestnut-sided Warbler’s green back, bold eye ring

   and yellow wing bars

And there is still more I find disappointing — or at least curious — in Sibley:

• More emphasis is needed on how any swimming loon, not just the Arctic, can show white on its sides and flanks at the water line.

• I am unconvinced that the “prominent buffy streak” shown on the female/juvenile Green-winged Teal’s tail is a consistent difference from Blue-winged Teal. I have been unable to see it on some Green-wingeds, and the streak on those teal I looked at the other day was white (not buffy) and inconspicuous: much shorter and thinner than illustrated in Sibley. It also needs to be mentioned that a swimming teal showing a green wing patch is not necessarily a Green-winged: as shown in the Geographic field guide, Blue-wingeds and Cinnamons also have this.

• In life, not all juvenile Northern Goshawks appear as illustrated: some have clean Cooper’s-like underparts streaking, and some lack a noticeable white supercilium.

• The best way to distinguish a perched juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk from a juvenile Broad-winged is to note its banded secondaries. While this appears in the illustrations, it is not pointed out and it will be not be noticed by most readers.

• A picture is needed of one of those brownish Hudsonian Godwits you see in spring which are very difficult to tell from a Marbled unless it flies.

• In life, the Baird’s Sandpiper — especially a juvenile — is much buffier than illustrated.

• Juvenile and first-winter Ring-billed Gulls do not always have a narrow tail band; some show (even though Sibley’s pictures don’t) an apparent all-black tail like a second-winter California. Sibley also needs to mention that some second-winter Ring-billeds have a dark eye and pinkish or grayish legs — again, much like a California Gull.

• Though there is serious talk of two species of Marsh Wrens, both of which may occur in Minnesota, neither Sibley nor any other reference I’ve seen clearly explains how to tell them apart.

• The caption “bright green back” points to a brown-backed Black-throated Green Warbler.

• Despite the captions, I can see no real difference between the top Louisiana Waterthrush picture and the Northern illustration next to it.

• Of the 12 Savannah Sparrow illustrations, only four show birds with yellow lores, and there is only one brief, inconspicuous and passing reference to this important field mark.

*          *          *

Given the vast amount of information in The Sibley Guide to Birds, it undoubtedly presents many other identification points which I have yet to discover in these pages and test in the field. But no time for that now. I’m off to go shopping for a birding jacket with an extra large pocket, and then it’s off to the gym to do some weight lifting. Both I and my wardrobe need to get in shape for the new field guide in town.