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First look: David Sibley describes changes to look for in his revised Guide to Birds

David Allen Sibley. Photo by Richard Pasley.
David Allen Sibley. Photo by Richard Pasley.

Circle the date: March 11, 2014. That’s when the long-awaited second edition of The Sibley Guide to Birds goes on sale.

According to the publisher, almost every aspect of the book has undergone a remarkable makeover. Dozens of species have been added, most paintings have been revised, and hundreds of new paintings have been created. Maps have been updated, fonts have been tweaked, illustrations enlarged.

Because author David Sibley is a BirdWatching contributing editor whose useful ID tips and beautiful artwork appear in every issue, we got to be the first not only to interview him but also to show you sample pages from the second edition.

Our detailed, revealing conversation follows, along with 10 pages from the new book and its cheerful, hawk-free cover (below).

Please walk us through the publishing history of the Guide to Birds, first published in 2000. There have been multiple printings but only one edition, isn’t that right?

Yes, there have been many printings, but the only real change was a couple of errors corrected in the fourth printing. (The second and third printings were rolled together and happened just after the book went on sale, so I had no chance to make changes until the fourth.)

So much has changed in the world of birds since the Guide to Birds first appeared — just think of all the lumps and splits and species added to the AOU Check-list and ABA Checklist. When did you decide to prepare a revised edition?

I was already thinking of a revised edition while I was working on the first one, even before it was printed. Authors and artists are notorious perfectionists, and sometimes a project never gets finished because there is always one more thing to fix or check or confirm, and so you just keep tweaking it. I get around that by telling myself, “It will never be perfect, and I can fix things in the revised edition.” In fact, I’m already thinking of the revisions I’ll make in the next edition.

About David Sibley

Artist David Sibley is the author of Sibley’s Birding Basics (2002), field guides to the birds of eastern and western North America (2003), and The Sibley Guide to Trees (2009) as well as The Sibley Guide to Birds (2000). He is the illustrator and a co-author of The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior (2001). He’s been one of our contributing editors since 2007. He writes and illustrates the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue.

How did feedback received via your website or from other sources influence the second edition?

A lot, and there are so many different sources of information now that it’s hard to write the acknowledgments for any project. A few people took the time to write detailed critiques of the first edition, and those were very helpful, and quite a few people have emailed me with specific suggestions or pointing out errors.

As you know, I’ve posted some in-depth stuff on bird identification and other related topics on my website, and the feedback from those is really helpful — things like Canada vs. Cackling Goose, the ranges of the recently split species of whip-poor-wills, and more.

But there’s also the nearly infinite stream of discussion online. I subscribe to MassBird, ID-Frontiers, and a few other email listservs, and I browse the ABA Birding News site and a lot of other discussion groups once in a while. One thing I watch for is what species and plumages are causing identification issues. If someone in New Mexico, say, posts a photo of a bird that he or she can’t identify and gets comments from other birders, that might prompt me to add some detail to the guide.

How long have you been working on the second edition?

It’s been about two and a half years from start to finish on this second edition.

We see that the basic layout hasn’t changed (still usually a column per species, with birds in flight at top and birds at rest below), but the pages look different. There’s no text at the top of pages, for example, and maps for range-restricted species are zoomed in, not shown at continental scale. Please tell us what has changed and why.

The layout is really important to me, and I think the column-per-species works very well. I didn’t want to change that, but I did want to change the way the text is arranged.

Some things, like the fonts, are design decisions, aesthetics, and I follow the lead of the designer. (In this guide and in my tree guide a few years ago, that has been Charles Nix.) Other things are decided after lots of thought, consideration, and some discussion.

Pages 144-45 of the second edition are above. On the left page, the common names “Rails, Coots, Cranes, and Limpkin” appear at top, not the scientific name of the order, “Gruiformes,” as in the first edition. On the right page, new paintings of a downy young American Coot, variant coot frontal shields, and dancing cranes fill the left column. The range map for Limpkin shows only Florida and parts of adjacent states, not the entire continent.

Maybe one or two examples will give the idea: I originally planned the book (about 20 years ago!) with a couple of lines of text across the top of each page, covering both species. In a lot of cases, this made sense and worked really well. For example, Short-tailed and Sooty Shearwater share so much in common that it was easy to compare and contrast them, and the two lines at the top served as an introduction to the pair of species. On most other pages, I used it as a place to highlight a habitat or a behavior of each species, but the inconsistency bothered me, and it was a very limited amount of text.

In the revised edition, I wanted to add more info on status and habitat, and the logical place to put that was next to the map for each species. Once that was decided, there was not much use for the text that had been at the top of the page, at least for most species, and by getting rid of it, we simplified the design of the page and gained a little extra room to make the images bigger.

Regarding the maps: Working on the first edition, I went through a period where I thought the book should not include range maps at all — it’s an identification guide, and birds should be identified by their actual appearance and sounds; range is just probability, not an identifying feature.

Eventually, I came around and decided to include maps, but I wanted all of the maps to be the same size and scale. I think that makes it easier for a reader to flip through the pages quickly, glancing at his or her area on the map — say, Minnesota — and seeing what species are likely. When the maps are all different sizes, it requires an extra step for the reader to figure out what part of the continent is shown, and then what that means for his or her location.

It also bothers my sense of fairness when a species like Spot-breasted Oriole gets a detailed map showing exactly what part of Florida it is in, down to 10- or 20-mile detail, but for the much more common and well-known Song Sparrow, you can barely make out its status in the whole state of Florida. That should be the other way around, with the range of common species shown in more detail than the very local ones, but that simply isn’t practical in a printed book.

I would still prefer to have the maps all the same, but I heard from readers and from my editor that they wanted zooms. In the end, I was swayed by the idea that showing more detail was better whenever possible.

How does the size of the second edition compare with that of the first edition?

The trim size is the same, but I’m adding 80 pages. The first edition had 544 pages. The second edition will come in at 624.

Here are pages 146-47 of the second edition. Paintings of introduced Purple Swamphen appear in the outside half of the left page. A small feral population has become established in Florida. The species was portrayed much smaller, between range maps, in the first edition. The range map for Purple Swamphen shows only Florida and parts of adjacent states, not the entire continent.

You’re adding 98 non-exotic rare species to the second edition, 18 of which are seabirds (raising the number of albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters from 19 to 30, and the number of storm-petrels from 8 to 12). Why so many?

I hadn’t realized how seabird-heavy the additions were! I guess that’s a reflection of the increasing sophistication of pelagic birding trips and guides. I can remember when Black-capped Petrel was considered a real rarity and the first well-documented Band-rumped Storm-Petrel caused a big stir. That was just 30 years ago, in the 1980s, and now we know both species are a consistent presence for much of the year in the right habitat, and both are represented by more than one form.

Species like Hawaiian Petrel, Bermuda Petrel, and European Storm-Petrel were barely known in the late 1990s, when I was doing the work for the first edition; now they are seen annually. All of those species had to be added, obviously. With this pace of discovery, even though species like Barolo Shearwater and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel are currently represented by just a few records each, you get the feeling that next year birders will venture into the right water at the right season and find out that the birds are occurring regularly.

You’re adding a good number of super-rare Code-5 species to the second edition — that is, species that have been recorded five or fewer times in the ABA Checklist Area, or fewer than three times in the past 30 years. What was your reasoning for including them? Does their inclusion signal a change of focus for the Guide to Birds?

In some cases, this reflects only the need to update the codes — Willow Warbler has occurred nearly 20 times in the last 10 years, Sinaloa Wren at least 4 times in 10 years (and several of those were long-staying individuals seen by lots of people).

That’s one of the keys to my criteria: How many birders are likely to run across the species (or the possibility of the species)? In that respect, a species that occurs very rarely in the lower 48 is more likely to make the cut than a species that occurs very rarely in the Aleutians. I didn’t use a hard rule, and I included some species like European Turtle-Dove, with two accepted records, while leaving out species like Ruddy Quail-Dove, which has been recorded six or so times. I included Mangrove Swallow (with only one accepted record in Florida in 2002) because it has always seemed to me like a species that should occur more often as a vagrant. Each choice was made individually, and at the borderline, there are a lot that could have gone either way. I view it really more as a prediction — Which species will be needed in this book in the next 10 years? — than as a compilation of past records.

Cranes appear on pages 148-49 of the second edition. On the left, Common Crane, a very rare Eurasian species not included in the first edition, appears alongside Whooping Crane. Common Crane is recorded in North America only about once a year. Sandhill Cranes, with which Common Cranes often associate, take up all of the facing page.

Another example is Lanceolated Warbler. We have only a few records in western Alaska and one in California, but it is such a secretive species it’s tempting to assume that dozens or hundreds must occur for every one that is found, so maybe awareness will lead to more records.

In some cases, it came down to space. I tried to lay out the entire book, fitting all the species together with as much space as each one needed, with related species together, and then trying to puzzle together the best arrangement to put similar species on facing pages. This left some gaps that needed to be filled, while other sections were squeezed. A lack of space was not the determining factor in leaving anything out (if I thought something really needed to be included, I found a way to make room for it), but having space led to a few species being added.

Field identification of some of the species you’re adding is a challenge, to say the least (e.g., Tundra/Taiga Bean-Goose, Gray/Great Blue Heron, Magnificent/Great/Lesser Frigatebird, Little/Eskimo Curlew). Did this factor in your thinking about whether to include them?

Definitely. It’s always fun to imagine that a species like Gray Heron or Great Frigatebird is occurring annually in North America but not being recognized. Making people more aware of the possibility might help. In some cases, including one species essentially required including another. For example, I’ve added illustrations of all seven presumed extinct species and two extinct subspecies to the introduction. When I illustrated Eskimo Curlew, I felt obligated to add Little Curlew, so that people would be aware that there is a real identification challenge there.

In the first edition, another consideration was to keep the guide relatively streamlined and usable for the average birder. I was trying to make the one all-purpose bird guide and didn’t want to clutter it up with unlikely species like Eurasian Kestrel. Now that the eastern and western field guides are out, I don’t feel so constrained by trying to make this one book suitable for every level, and that removed one of the obstacles to including rare species.

The book also adds a few distinctive subspecies that were not covered in the first edition — Dunlin, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and Eastern Bluebird come to mind.

You’re adding 13 exotic species (Rosy-billed Pochard, Red Junglefowl, Golden Pheasant, Sacred Ibis, White-eyed Parakeet, Blue-and-yellow Macaw, Black-throated Magpie-Jay, House Crow, Hooded Crow, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Red-vented Bulbul, and Orange Bishop). What was your reasoning for including these?

Hooded Crow is different from the others on this list as it’s not a frequent escape. It’s included based on a few records and the possibility that it could occur as a wild bird, and also because it needs to be distinguished carefully from House Crow, so I didn’t feel like I could include one without the other.

Rails are depicted on pages 150-51. On the right page, the range map for King Rail shows only the eastern half of the United States and lower Canada, not the entire continent. No maps in the second edition are enclosed in boxes, as they were in the first edition.

Almost all of the exotic species have nested in the wild, and a few could easily increase and be added to the official list in another decade or so. My goal with this guide has always been to show readers all of the species they are likely to see free-flying in North America, regardless of whether those species are native or exotic.

Going strictly by the numbers, a lot more birders are going to happen upon a Black-throated Magpie-Jay next year than, say, a Crescent-chested Warbler, but most field guides leave out these non-established exotics and include the rarities. It’s up to the ABA and AOU to decide whether those exotic species reach a threshold of “established,” but a Black-throated Magpie-Jay in San Diego doesn’t carry a sign around its neck that says, “Non-established exotic.” It is simply a bird, and a particularly striking and noticeable one, and when birders open the book, I think they should be able to find it. Obviously, there are limits, and I can’t include every species ever seen in the wild in North America, but the ones that are seen frequently are included.

Are you removing any species that appeared in the first edition?

Just two: Black Francolin, which was briefly established in Louisiana but had already disappeared when the first edition came out, and Red-legged Partridge, which has been released at least a couple of times in different places, but I don’t know of any sightings recently. I’ve reduced the coverage of Crested Myna, since they are now extirpated in the northwest and seen only as occasional escapes.

The second edition includes more than 600 updated maps. Who worked on the maps in the second edition?

Paul Lehman did all the maps for this edition, and he compiled all of the information for the eastern and western field guides 10 years ago, which came from more than 100 regional experts across all states and provinces. Those maps formed the basis for these, but lots of new information since then and some actual changes in bird distribution meant that all had to be updated.

Two fascinating ducks caught our eye: Stejneger’s Scoter and Eurasian Merganser, or Goosander. Neither is on the ABA Checklist. Why did you include them? Should we be anticipating a split from White-winged Scoter?

Both are subspecies, and both are recorded rarely in western Alaska, but the merganser, in particular, seems like it should occur at least rarely farther south in North America, and maybe awareness will lead to some discoveries. Both are possible splits, but I would not put them in the top candidates for splitting.

Pages 152-53 of the second edition are shown here. Black downy young rails appear alongside adult Virginia Rail and adult Sora on the left page. As in the first edition, birds in flight appear at the tops of columns, while wading or walking birds are arranged below.

We enjoyed seeing the downy young of Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Mallard, Common Goldeneye, Wood Duck, Redhead, and Hooded Merganser. (Only the fuzzy whistling-duck was shown in the first edition.) Why did you decide to include them?

Well, it seemed odd to include just the downy whistling-duck, and these are frequently seen plumages and not always identifiable by the accompanying parent, so I thought it would be a useful thing to add a sampling of downy young waterfowl.

Will your Sibley eGuide to Birds app be updated with content from the second edition? If so, when?

That’s the plan, and hopefully it will be out at the same time as the printed book. That’s a huge project all by itself, and far more than just taking the digital files from the book and hitting the export-as-app button. I enjoy it, and it gives me a chance to add a lot of things that don’t fit in the book, but it’s a lot of work and ongoing.

What was the most enjoyable part of revising the book?

As always, I enjoy the research and the discovery. I really enjoyed the challenge of going out in the field and into the museum, researching new information on species like Pacific and Winter Wrens, subspecies of Eastern Bluebird, etc. There aren’t any species that got a complete makeover in this edition, just lots of little things that should make the information and the illustrations more accurate and more useful.

What was the hardest thing about revising the book?

Trying to blend the new work with the old. The original paintings were done in one marathon session about five years long. There’s a difference between the earliest and latest work in that time, but my style, the colors I used, and the flow of the work were unified.

It’s been almost 15 years since I finished those paintings. My painting style has changed, the colors on my palette have changed, my eyesight has changed, and so much more, but I was still trying to create new paintings that would blend with the old ones, and I was doing a relatively small number of new paintings in small batches, not the continuous stream of work week after week that I did for the first guide.

The Sibley Guide to Birds (second edition), by David Allen Sibley.
The Sibley Guide to Birds (second edition), by David Allen Sibley.

It was an impossible task: I couldn’t really match the old paintings. When the new ones didn’t quite match, I was faced with a choice — revise the old ones to try to bring them closer to the new, revise the new ones, or just let them be different. I think I chose each of these options at different times, and, hopefully, the contrast of styles won’t be a distraction to readers.

Is the illustration of whistling-ducks running to take off from water the same one that BirdWatching readers saw in “ID Toolkit” in the August 2012 issue?

Yes, it is. I’ve been doing small paintings for the last few years with an eye toward using them in this revision. A lot of them didn’t fit, but that was one that actually found a place in the book.

Finally, what species will be on the cover of the second edition?

Magnolia Warbler — which I’m very happy about, because it was one of my spark birds when I was in third grade. My father was working at Point Reyes Bird Observatory in California, and when I came home from school one day, he was there with a brilliant male Magnolia Warbler that had been trapped and banded — very rare on the west coast, very beautiful, and very mysterious as it flew off into the woods and vanished.

Look for an excerpt of this interview, and another installment of David Sibley’s popular regular column “ID Toolkit,” in the February 2014 issue of BirdWatching magazine, on newsstands January 7, 2014. 

Read our 2001 interview with David Sibley about the first edition of his field guide.

Read how Sibley keeps birds from hitting windows at his home.

Read his description of Florida’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, the Sora capital of the world.

Publishers and authors:

If you’ve brought out a book that we should consider reviewing, send it here:

BirdWatching Magazine
Madavor Media, LLC.
25 Braintree Hill Office Park, Suite 404
Braintree, MA 02184

Update, January 13, 2014: Preliminary cover replaced with final cover image.

  Originally Published

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