Birders have been eagerly anticipating The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition, since it was announced that David Allen Sibley was working on it. The first edition, I think it is fair to say, has been pretty much become the go to field guide for North America in the years since it was first published back in 2000. We have all been wondering if the second edition would live up to the high expectations set by the first and as review copies have dribbled out over the last month some of our questions have been answered.

This is not intended to be a full review. You will have to wait until Donna Schulmann publishes her thoughts in April to get a full review of the new Sibley on 10,000 Birds. Instead, this is a collection of impressions of the new book with the hope that it will give birders considering a purchase of the second edition an idea of what they will be getting should they decide to spend the $40 that is the list price (though you can pre-order it for $24.39 on Amazon for the release date of 11 March).

Sibley Guides

my well-worn first edition with the brand new second edition

Without further ado, let’s get into ten things about the new Sibley.

  1. I like the cover of the first edition more than the second edition. This is entirely subjective and rather surprised me, considering how much I like wood-warblers.
  2. The page on extinct species in the introduction is depressing and perfect. Every field guide should include such a page – let’s just hope that subsequent editions do not get more additions.
  3. The seven pages that Sibley devotes to “bird topography” and the parts of birds are, as is to be expected from Sibley, awesome. No one does these illustrations better than Sibley and they alone are worth the price of the book.
  4. The range maps are better because of a subtle but effective change. The maps are still shaded for regions where birds are in winter, summer, year-round, and during migration. But now, instead of green dots that pinpoint where a bird has been recorded outside of those ranges, which was an inelegant and relatively useless solution, Sibley went with a green shade to show the range where a species shows up rarely. It looks better, works better, and is a more realistic approach to vagrancy. Also, they are as up-to-date as you would expect. Especially amazing is how the Rufous Hummingbird went from having a series of green dots across the southeastern United States in the first edition, indicating a pattern of vagrancy, to having the southeastern United States shaded blue, to indicate that the species regularly winters there. Fourteen years can bring pretty big changes both to species’ ranges and to how those ranges are portrayed.
  5. Just like the first edition, the second edition has little surprises tucked away throughout the book. I particularly like that the owl section has a section on “Owling” in which Sibley explains both how to find owls and how to avoid disturbing them. Hopefully, those who seek owls will read Sibley’s advice and take it to heart.
  6. There are 111 more species included in this edition. Those who take on the thankless task of eBird reviewing should prepare themselves for having those 111 species reported more often. As many have realized, if a bird is in the field guide it is much more likely to be reported.
  7. As has been pointed out by others, some plates seem to be printed oddly. In particular, quite a few plates are quite dark. The red of the Scarlet Tanager seems particularly off, and many brown species seem almost black. This is definitely an issue but I don’t think it will lead to misidentification, though it might lead to more difficulty in making an identification. The plates are still amazing but I hope that later printings are not so dark.
  8. I find it very amusing that the Northwestern Crow isn’t even illustrated on its plate, though it does get a small image at the beginning of the Corvidae section. Instead, Sibley says that it is “essentially identical to American Crow…not distinguishable by appearance.” It is nice to see House Crow depicted, though I wonder if this might lead to mistaken identifications. That Hooded Crow is included based on the single record of uncertain origins seems like overkill, though it’s kind of cool that I saw that bird.
  9. The larger size of the images throughout the guide is a very good adjustment. Field guides are, after all, mostly about the depictions of birds so it only makes sense that they be as large as possible and still leave room for the text.
  10. In the hummingbird section the illustrations of the hummingbird flight displays have shrunk from a full page in the first edition to a half-page in the second edition. But Sibley has jammed nine different displays into the second edition versus the first edition’s five! And the other half of the page includes illustrations of wing shapes of four different genera of hummingbirds, illustrations that were scattered around the entire hummingbird section in the first edition. This is a pretty nice improvement over the previous edition.

Overall, the second edition is superior to the first edition. The layout is better, the images are bigger, more birds are included, space is used more wisely, there is lots more information, and the book is only four ounces heavier and about the same size. The only real negative is the overly dark printing, which is outweighed, in my humble opinion, by the many improvements. If the darkness of many plates can be fixed I think that The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition, will take its place head-and-shoulders above the rest of the crowded North American field guide market.

Alfred A Knopf provided review copies of this book to 10,000 Birds.

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.