"Sibley is Lousy" ???


Presumably, the words in the title of this piece caught your attention. That was certainly the case for me when I arrived home from work last evening and found them in the subject line of several posts to  to IN-Bird--the statewide birding listserv for Indiana.

A subscriber to that listserv had posted images of tern (photographed in Texas) that they were having difficulty identifying. Unable to find a perfect match in the Sibley Guide, one respondent concluded that the overall structure and plumage of the bird best matched Sibley's illustration of a Royal Tern. Only one problem, it had an all-dark bill that appeared to have a light tip.

Several other posters suggested (correctly) that the bird was a Sandwich Tern, while someone else thought it might be a Gull-billed Tern. Ultimately, Sibley’s illustrations were called into question because he showed Sandwich Tern with paler wingtips and tertials and than those shown by the bird photographed in Texas. It was at this point that someone suggested “Sibley is lousy.”

Until you've worked on developing a field guide, or tried to illustrate birds, it might be wise to avoid casting too many stones. In my opinion Sibley's artwork is a step forward from the illustrations that are featured in various other North American field guides. Surely, some of his species are not letter perfect, nor do they look exactly like the live bird in front of you. However, I find that Sibley's paintings are better than most in terms of capturing the subtleties of shape and proportion and his colors seem to be very accurate. 

Just yesterday, I referred a fellow Oregon birder to Sibley's dowitcher plates. His renditions of a juv. caurinus (western subspecies) Short-billed Dowitcher and a juv. Long-billed Dowitcher are excellent in my opinion. If you want to learn how to separate juvenile dowitchers without having to hear them call, the two-page set in his original big book is a perfect place to start your education.

One of the limiting factors to a field guide (if one expects to have their guide used) is size. Typically, they are designed to fit in a large pocket. Given these size constraints, field guide authors have to make thousands of decisions about what to include and what not to include. By default they cannot show every conceivable variation in plumage.

Complicating matters is the fact that a bird's plumage is never static. On some level, molt, wear and bleaching are going on constantly. Combine these factors with the infinite number of lighting conditions we may encounter and the limitations of our own eyesight and it's easy to understand how our mental image of a particular bird is somewhat subjective. Unless you are birding side-by-side with Sibley, you are unlikely to see a bird the same way he sees it. Even if you have the good fortune to share his company in the field, your eyesight and his are different. Additionally, you will not share the exact same viewing angle, adding yet another variable in the way each of you perceives an individual bird. I find it astonishing that any of his illustrations match my mental image of the species they depict. The fact that someone can take paint and paper and produce illustrations of birds that depict what I'm seeing  is a marvel. I can't even draw the outline of a bird in proper shape or proportion, let alone start filling in the colors.

At BirdFellow.com, we are currently designing an online field guide. In addition to slightly lengthier species accounts, we will be building extensive photo galleries for every North American species. By doing this, we hope to capture many of the subtle transitional plumages and seasonal variations that will never appear in a printed field guide. We are of the opinion that there is a place for both painted illustrations and photo galleries, but the Internet lends itself to photo sharing and we will not be governed by the space limitations that dictate so many of the editorial decisions one is forced to make in producing a print field guide.

I have to thank those who engaged in the IN-Bird discussion for inspiring this piece. It is not meant to be critical of their questioning of David Sibley's artwork. On the contrary, I feel it is important that we think out loud about how our community is being served by these resources and figure out ways to make the next generation of field guides even better. In their time, Roger Tory Peterson's field guides were the gold standard, but very few of us use them now. New technologies and new information will likely have Sibley's guides collecting dust on our bookshelves in a few decades as well. 

On many occasions, I've been among those who criticized certain aspects of one field guide or another. However, since taking on a lead role in the ongoing production of the BirdFellow online guide, I have new found appreciation for folks who undertake such endeavors. I can't begin to wrap my mind around the thousands upon thousands of hours that David Sibley has devoted to painting all the plates that appear in his guides. I suspect that Sibley would be the first to tell you that his illustrations are not perfect. But "lousy?" Hardly.


A very thoughtful little essay, and I’m eager to see the fruits of your online field guide efforts.
All the best,


Right on Dave, I reside in a locale with many opportunities for great sightings and am often called upon to make the field ID out our office window, but just today I was called out because the immature peregrine didn’t match exactly the quickly posted web photo of a mature bird that some doubting coworker found. Imagine trying to explain the leucistic Purple Martins along our waterfront!



That’s why I take several field guides with me when I go on a major outing.
I too await your cyberguide.


What is Mr. Rick Wright’s excuse for not knowing that Northern Goshawks are a common species in Tucson? For 22 months starting in winter 2000-01, I have 22 months of observing Goshawks in Tucson. Lack of information by even the advanced birder during Christmas bird counts and also migration counts are inacurrate. what this amounts to is D.A. Sibley and William S. Clark do not realise that Goshakws are moving into cities and suburbs and have been doing so for many years.


While we appreciate comments from those who follow our online journal, a major component of our mission with BirdFellow is to create a community that is welcoming and respectful of all who visit our site. Clashes of ego and personality have been an issue within the North American community of birders for as long as I can remember. It is clear from the tone of Mr. Briefer’s comments that he has some personal issue with Rick Wright, David Sibley, and William S. Clark regarding the status of Northern Goshawk in Tucson, Arizona. It is both perplexing and inappropriate that someone would raise this issue and publicly question the knowledge of three highly respected gentlemen in response to an article that does not discuss the status and distribution of Northern Goshawk. This is not the forum to publicly air such differences. At the same time, if you find information published at BirdFellow.com that you feel is incorrect or unclear, respectful corrections will be welcomed and are encouraged. The BirdFellow community would appreciate it if there is no further response to Mr. Briefer’s comments and we would similarly appreciate it if he refrain from using this forum to air his grievances with others.

Good birding,

Dave Irons
Content Editor BirdFellow.com


The “Sibley is lousy” quote seems to encapsulate a problem which, in my opinion, is common with relatively inexperienced birders. Many of them seem to expect every bird they see in the field to look exactly like one of the illustrations in Sibley’s book (or in some other field guide). If the bird does not look EXACTLY like the illustration, then there must be something wrong with the field guide.

Many inexperienced birders seem to have no concept of the tremendous variation in plumages within many species— variation related to the sex of the bird, age of the bird, time of year (i.e., molt status), or just plain individual variation. Veteran birders (in which group I include myself), professional ornithologists, and field guide authors need to do a better job of emphasizing to beginners the extent and nature of this variation.

The irony here is that the Sibley Guide to Birds, of all North American bird guides, has done the best job of illustrating multiple plumages within many species. It is the last field guide that ought to be accused of being “lousy”.

Even though the Sibley guide— like every other field guide— undoubtedly has a few cases of oversimplification, misplaced emphasis, or even outright errors, the “Sibley is lousy” quote reveals far more about the unrealistic expectations of many inexperienced birders than it does about any actual shortcomings of the field guide.


Nice post. I think this is a perfect illustration of Alfred Korzybski line, “The map is not the territory.” The birding novice only has a map to navigate with (the field guide), so anything not pictured exactly in the guide falls into the dread category of “Here be monsters.” A birder who has wandered the territory for a while understands that not everything of interest can be shown on a map (or in a field guide), no matter how good it is, because both navigational devices require some simplification in order to be useful. By that point, the birder’s own field experience has (hopefully) shown that reality is more complicated than any representation of it.

Having said that, I look forward to seeing your online guide very much!

Great site, how do I subscribe?

Really like this site, would you mind if I link to it from my blog?

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