David Sibley, the author and illustrator of Sibley’s Birding Basics is best known as the man responsible for The Sibley Guide to Birds (second edition 2014). David Sibley is also the content expert behind the iOS app The Sibley eGuide. The son of an ornithologist, Sibley grew up birding, beginning to draw birds as a young child, eventually leading birding tours. Deciding that the current birding field guides could be better, he released his first New York Times bestselling bird guide, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds in 2000 (second edition 2014). He’s also partnered with Audubon in producing the new Audubon Online Field Guide To North American Birds.
Sibley’s Birding Basics is not a bird identification field guide; instead, it’s a how-to manual about bird watching and identification. Or, as Sibley says in his “Introduction”: “It is the challenge and the process of identification that is the primary focus of this book.” This isn’t a book for the casual birder, instead it’s a book for the kind of birder who keeps a list of birds they’ve seen at their feeder (or in their life). It’s a book intended for someone interested in the next level of birding, someone who already has a field guide (or three) and is interested in becoming a better birder.
“It is the challenge and the process of identification that is the primary focus of this book.”
In addition to the Introduction, there are sixteen chapters; the first eight are broadly about locating and identifying birds based on physical traits and behavior. The first chapter, Getting Started is particularly helpful int terms of specific tips like “Learn to see details,” and “Focus on the bird’s bill and face.” He talks about the importance of watching for various patterns in terms of appearance and behavior. I particularly like that he talks about the value of not only a good field guide and binoculars, but suggests using a notebook for quick notes and sketches (whether or not a birder is artistic, sketches help remind us of what we noticed). I also liked that Sibley points out the usefulness of marking up a field guide with annotations or stickers as a way to help remember and to make finding information easier.
Sibley also covers “Finding Birds,” “The Challenges of Bird Identification,” “Misidentification,” “Identifying Rare Birds,” “Taxonomy,” and “Using Behavioral Cues.” He offers lots of specific examples of what to avoid in terms of attempting to identify a specific bird, and a wealth of tips. The tips are both specific and practical, for instance, “A simple method of ‘measuring’ part of a bird in the field is to compare it to another part of the bird.”
I’m particularly pleased to see an entire chapter of Sibley’s Birding Basics devoted to identifying and paying attention to “Voice,” or the songs and calls that birds make. Sibley offers clear description and definitions of the distinction between calls and songs, and breaks them down even further, with kinds of calls: Contact call, Flight call, Other calls. I also like the way he notes the common mnemonics birders use to remember what birds make what songs; like the White-throated Sparrow “Old Sam, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” This is one of the most helpful things for a new birder to know. I wish that he had included more (and that more birders knew about them).
The second half of the book is largely devoted to bird anatomy and the correct terms of art for various parts of birds in order to specifically focus on identifying the species, and even the age and sex of a particular bird. There are particularly helpful and deep discussion about feathers, how they function, what the various sections are called, coloration and color patterns, and the nature and function of molting, both as a seasonal event and in terms of the changes some birds pass through as they age from fledgling to breeding adult. I am particularly glad that the final chapter is on “Ethics and Conservation” in the context of birding.
The ebook version seems to have all 200 illustrations (though I didn’t count them), but honestly, this is an instance where personally, I’d much rather have the printed version than the ebook. The artwork is fantastic, and it really does add a lot to the book. The binding is a semi-rigid “flexibound” plastic binding. It’s flexible but durable. The paper is high quality and the artwork, which includes full birds as well as detailed images of specific features, really does shine.
David Sibley’s Sibley’s Birding Basics is very much like having an experience birder by your side. Lots of specific practical tips, terms of art carefully explained and illustrated, and loaded with specific examples, often profusely illustrated with 200 of Sibley’s paintings. Birding Basics is not a substitute for a field guide, but it is a wonderful introduction to birding effectively and a great companion to a field guide.
David Sibley has a Website. He’s also written a number of other books about birds, birding, and trees.