Book Review: Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition

SibleysecondeditionI must start this review by saying that I’ve been a fan of David Sibley’s field guides since I received my first guide — The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America — as a Christmas gift in 2009 (I was 12) from my parents. The Sibley guides are my all-time favorites and they’ve helped me learn so much about bird identification and bird behavior. When I started birding, I took the guide with me everywhere and it’s now held together with packing tape and highlighted with post-it notes.

I received a review copy of the new second edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley (Knopf, March 2014) a few weeks ago and have been eagerly reading and looking through it ever since. I’m very happy with the new additions and the guide’s overall appearance. Here are a few of my thoughts on The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition:

This guide is a bit heavier than the first edition, and I wouldn’t often take it out in the field; but if I’m studying the guide at home, weight’s not really an issue. The weight is due to an expanded introduction, updated maps, 600 new paintings which include 111 rare species added, more text on identification tips of tricky species as well as foraging and habitat behavior, and a checklist of all the species at the back of the book. Also, this guide has larger illustrations and updated taxonomy. A very good addition and nice touch are the illustrations of extinct species, a small but very good reminder of the species we’ve lost. There’s also a great section on bird topography and a very useful chart of molt cycle in birds.

The maps have all been updated to reflect the change of species distribution over the past 14 years. One of the most substantial population shifts noted is for the Eurasian-collared Dove, on page 260, which has expanded its range northward quite a bit. For species that have a more limited range, the illustrations are “zoomed in” so you can see the range more clearly.

Some of the new illustrations include more juvenile plumages for some species, additional hybrids, downy young (Killdeer, some rails, and some ducks). Red-flanked Bluetail, Hawaiian Petrel, Smew, Green-breasted Mango, Eurasian Kestrel, Variegated Flycatcher, Brown Shrike, Sinaloa Wren, and Crescent-chested Warbler are just some of the new species added to this guide.

Most of this guide is arranged like the first edition with just a few small changes. One of the largest changes birders will probably notice is the family Falconidae (which includes Peregrine Falcon, Crested Caracara, Merlin, American Kestrel, and other falcons), which has been moved between woodpeckers and parrots. This is the result of new DNA studies that show that falcons are more closely related to parrots than hawks.

I’ve read that many people are having trouble reading the text, which is now light gray in color instead of the previous black. Though I don’t find the text particularly hard to read, it might be that my eyes are still young. When I asked my (non-birding) mother, who now uses reading glasses, what she thought of the book’s text, she said she found the font thin and difficult to read in low light. So the light-colored type and thin font might be an issue for some older birders or those who need reading glasses. 

A color change in some of the illustrations has sparked even more controversy that the font. Many of the colors are significantly darker than in the earlier edition and pocket guides. The Scarlet Tanager, Northern Cardinal, Cinnamon Teal, and even Purple Finch illustrations seem much darker than the actual birds would appear in the field. Interestingly, in the first edition, some of the colors seemed much too bright or washed out in some illustrations. In this new edition, drawings of species with a lot of red or orange coloration seem to be very dark, but I think some of the drawings actually look better darker including Willet, American Pipit, and Warbling Vireo, just to name a few. If you think the dark colors are going to bother you, go to your local book store and take a look at the guide in person.

Here’s a comparison of the Scarlet Tanager: at left is the Second Edition and at right is my old Western Edition. In my opinion, the one on the left is too dark and the one on the right is too bright,


There are some errors and few minor typos in the first printing, includling a few mislabeled species in the group accounts; the labels for the hybrid geese (GWFG x CAGO and GWFG x SNGO) on page 4 are switched; incorrect measurements for the Thick-billed Kingbird; and I noticed that the California Condor is missing in the group accounts on page 120. Mr. Sibley said that the colors and other mistakes will be corrected in the next printing, so watch out for the second printing if you’re not happy with this current edition. 

This is the two-page spread of the hawks and vulture group accounts with the missing California Condor illustration,


With all that being said, I love this field guide and it will become my go-to bird identification field guide for North America. This guide is comprehensive, full of wonderful information, and the illustrations are so well done. I highly recommend this field guide to any amateur or serious birders. You just can’t get a better illustrated guide than one of David Sibley’s field guides.

You can buy this guide from your favorite bookseller.

Thank you very much to Knopf for providing me with a review copy.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition

  1. I was sitting in a bird blind in Texas. I lady had donated several brand new Sibley books and they were placed in the blinds. I heard several people mention that the text was hard to read. Hopefully, it will be corrected for us older folks. I had never used the Sibley books, but from your review and if the text is corrected I might try one. I like the idea of more juvenile photos. Thanks for your review!

  2. Pingback: Review Roundup: May, 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s