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WCAS NewsBook Reviews: The Sibley Guide to Birds & Birds of North America
Jeffrey Hall

Book Reviews: The Sibley Guide to Birds
& Birds of North America

Jeffrey Hall

The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Allen Sibley, Alfred A. Knopf publishers, New York, 2000

Birds of North America, Kenn Kaufman, Houghton Mifflin publishers, New York, 2000

Two of the leading figures in American birding, David Sibley and Kenn Kaufman, have taken very different approaches in their new guidebooks. Sibley has used his renowned talents as an artist to strive for a comprehensive reference work on bird identification; Kaufman has chosen to utilize computer technology to produce a compact book designed for field use by birders who are not experts. I've had the books in my possession for a little more than a week and have had a few opportunities to put them to use. My judgment is that both books are successful and that birders of many different levels of ability and interest could find much of use in each.

Sibley's book aspires to be used at the "expert" level and, as such, invites criticism from the "experts." I've read many of the critiques on various Internet discussion groups, as well as Sibley's response to some of them. Some valid points are raised (the rufous coloration on many of the birds is much too red, for instance), but frankly, many of the comments are so technical and obscure that the person concerned with so fine a point of identification wouldn't be using a guidebook anyway!

A typical half-page account (the ovenbird, for instance) includes two portraits of the perched bird, one an adult, the other a first year bird. Two other illustrations show the flying bird as it appears on the upstroke and the downstroke of a wingbeat. The illustrations feature lines pointing to major field marks, as in the "Peterson system," but the lines are captioned to state exactly what the birder should be observing. Additional text describes appearance and voice, and a map shows summer and winter ranges, migration routes, and rare occurrences. Many accounts have much more detail-the purple martin, for example, takes up an entire page, showing adults of both sexes perched and in flight, juvenile, and a first summer male, an example of the regional variation in the adult male, plus a diagram of wingbeat patterns-a total of 11 illustrations of one common species!

An additional feature of great use is the family account-all species in a family are illustrated on the first page of the section devoted to that group, allowing immediate comparison of an entire set of birds-and the ones shown are the most challenging members of the group, such as first winter females for warblers.

I recommend the Sibley Guide; a number of times when I was paging through it, something would catch my attention-a set of diagrams of hummingbird aerial displays, sketches of bill variation among peeps, illustrations of grouse in display-and I would simply think "Aren't birds wonderful?" That in itself tells me that the book was worth purchasing.

For all its merits, though, Sibley's book isn't a "field" guide. If I'm out birding, lugging binoculars, camera, and sometimes scope, I'm unwilling to burden myself further with a full-sized book. I'm not certain that I'm ready to replace my trusty Peterson with Kenn Kaufman's Birds of North America yet, but the very fact that I'd consider it is a strong recommendation for this book as well.

Kaufman, one of the modern masters of bird identification and author of the Peterson Guide to Advanced Birding, set out to create a book for the "average" birder. He does not try to solve every identification problem, but to equip you to recognize almost every bird you encounter. Kaufman does this by providing photographs, but he avoids the problems that have bedeviled other photographic guides by digitally editing the pictures. In this way, he provides a startlingly real image of the bird, but manipulates it so that variations in pose, lighting, or even film type are eliminated. To my eye, it works in virtually every case. The day I bought the book, I was able to verify immediately the identification of a juvenile pectoral sandpiper I encountered-not the most difficult i.d., admittedly, but a reasonably good field test. In addition, he manages to include a surprising amount of coverage of regional or subspecific variation, showing, for instance, four forms of fox sparrow and six immature stages of herring gull.

Kaufman includes a map for each bird showing summer, winter, and all-season ranges as well as migration routes, and clear, almost conversational text describing how to recognize each species. He has the grace and good sense to adopt some of Roger Tory Peterson's more memorable descriptions.

Kaufman has packed all of this information into a book that is the same size at the Peterson or Golden guides. Even birders who have reasonably impressive life lists and who can amaze non-birding friends by confidently identifying a speck flying in the distance can still be "beginners" when confronted by a drab, streaky sparrow or a "confusing fall warbler." In those cases, pulling Kaufman's book out of your pocket and refreshing your memory is likely to lead to a correct and confident i.d.

When both Kaufman's and Sibley's book appeared at the same time, I could only solve the quandary of which one to get by buying both of them. You won't be disappointed if you do the same.



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Last revision: Monday, November 27, 2000 - 09:56 PM