The One Bird Book You Need

The photo request was extremely specific: they wanted a brown pelican, in breeding plumage, diving.

I had just received the latest round of comments back from a project in California. The clients, a small town on the California coast, wanted to pack as much wallop into this photo as possible.

What? I don’t even know what that looks like!” I muttered to myself. Doing photo research is really difficult when you don’t know what it is you’re looking for. Googling the words gave me plenty of photos, but I had no idea what breeding plumage looked like. Certainly, none of them were diving.

Needing a moment away from my desk to think and commiserate, I stepped outside my office, exclaiming my quandary to my coworkers in the lobby.

A totally unexpected source chimed in, “Oh…I’m better with ducks, but I have a book I’ll bring in tomorrow. You can see what breeding plumage on a brown pelican looks like.”

And that is how I was introduced to The Sibley Guide to Birds.

Several weeks later I had obtained a discounted copy through Edward R. Hamilton booksellers, after which it became my most referenced book at work after the Chicago Manual of Style.

As many of the projects I work on involve basic bird identification, I’ve found Sibley’s guide to be invaluable. The book includes ample illustrations of adults (male and female) as well as juveniles. Species illustrations are done by Sibley himself, ensuring that you see the most important features of each bird. Range maps show where each species can be found in summer or winter.

After getting the book, I soon became a full-blown birdwatcher–the book’s organization helped me with that too. (See some photos here!) If I came across a bird that looked similar to a species I already knew, I could turn to the known species and start looking at the nearby entries. Once when I failed to write down the species in a photo, all I had to do was start looking at the terns for a mostly black and white species that would have Humboldt Bay, California, in its range.

The arctic tern–BAM!

Half of birdwatching is being able to identify calls, which is a slight weakness inherent of the printed medium of this book. Sibley describes calls, which is helpful if you’ve heard something and think you know what bird it is. The iPhone application iBirdExplorer is much better for learning call identification. (It also fits in your pocket better than the Sibley book does, too.)

At one point I owned the Sibley guide along with three other bird books. I’ve already retired two of those, and the third, National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America will be going soon. It has absolutely no wear, because I never use the darn thing.

Why would I, when I have the Sibley guide?

Note: David Sibley has recently released a field guide to trees! Sources say it’s just as good as the bird book.


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