Sibley's Birding Basics by David Allen Sibley

Sibley's Birding Basics by David Allen Sibley


1. Getting Started

Topics include learning to see details, watching for patterns, gaining experience, and learning from your mistakes. Advice on equipment is also given.

2. Finding Birds

Topics include field skills, keeping records in a field notebook, and sketching.

3. The Challenges of Bird Identification

Topics include: sorting skills (comparing and searching for matches), understanding field marks, relative differences, proportional differences, average differences, separating similar species (the example is the hairy versus the downy woodpeckers), gestalt, weak average differences, and partial cues.

4. Misidentification

"There are two separate issues that account for most species misidentifications. One involves the observer and normal birds that are either misjudged or misinterpreted. The other involves birds that are truly abnormal, such as hybrids and albinos. The overwhelming majority of problems is caused by the former."

Issues include judging size, judging proportions, color perception, and abnormal birds.

5. Identifying Rare Birds

The responsibility of doing so.

6. Taxonomy

"Taxonomy, the classification and naming of living things, is basically an attempt to discern evolutionary relationships based on the fundamental similarities and differences among species."

Discusses birds names and the concept of Species.

7. Using Behavioral Clues

"Learning the behavior of birds can give you clues to identify birds, but more often it simply gives you the information you will need to better understand the differences in plumage and structure among species."

Discusses foraging, flight, and seasonal changes in behavior.

8. Voice

"Identification of songs and calls can be the most frustrating and difficult aspect of bird identification to master, but for those who do learn it, it provides the greatest boost to birding skills -- as well as a great satisfaction."

Discusses learning to hear details, the structure of bird vocalization, how to describe and draw sounds, and categories of vocalizations.

9. Understanding Feathers

"Feathers are unique to birds and are virtually all we see of the bird in the field. ... Numbers of feathers on an individual bird range from minimum of 940 on a Ruby-throated Hummingbird to more than 25,000 on a Tundra Swan (70 percent of those on the head and the neck). Sparrows ... have 1500 to 2600 feathers."

Discusses types of feather, how feathers shape a bird, the concept of feather groups (illustrated by passerine and nonpasserines). Body feathers, wing feathers, and head feathers are described.

10. Feather Arrangement and Color Patterns

Six basic feather patterns:

  1. streaked
  2. spotted
  3. barred
  4. vermiculated
  5. edged
  6. edged
  7. notched

Discusses overall patterns, head patterns, and changes in appearance with posture.

11. Structure of Tail and Wings

"The long feathers of the tail and wings ... are patterned differently and move differently from the body feathers."

Discusses tail structure and mechanics, wing structure and mechanics, emargination and notch ("modifications of the outer primaries ... that create a narrower tip of the feather"), primary projection ("projection of the longest primary feathers beyond the tips of the tertials when the wing is folded"), wing patterns (determined by the colors and by the arrangement of the feathers), and finally the effects of light upon the wing patterns.

12. Bare Parts

Bare parts, including the bill (or beak) and the legs and the eye detail, can change quickly (even in seconds), controlled by a bird's hormones or behavioral state.

13. Molt

"Molt is the process by which birds replace their feathers, dropping the old ones and growing new ones. This is necessary because feathers wear out over time, losing their insulating or waterproofing qualities and becoming less efficient for flight. ... All birds molt and, as a general rule, they replace all their feathers at least once a year. Molt occurs only at certain times of year ... the timing of the process can be a useful field mark."

Discusses the basic molt, molt terminology (primarily using the Humphrey-Parkes system), and four basic molt patterns (as defined by Howell et al.):

Also shows the effects of molt on appearance include illustrations of Great Black-backed Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Snow Bunting, Western Sandpiper.

14. Feather Wear

"Two primary effects are wear and fading. The resulting gradual change in shape and color of feathers can lead to dramatic changes in appearance over time."

Interesting examples include the effect of wing-tips being worn down. Details examples are for: American Goldfinch, Ring-billed Gull, Western Sandpiper.

15. Age Variation

"In very similar and confusing species such as sandpipers, hawks, gulls, and flycatchers, it may be critical to know the age or sex of the bird before you reach an identification."

Outlines the effect of molt (including partial molt) on feather patterns. Includes the contrast in the Scarlet Tanager first-year male between new black tertials and coverts, compared with the older and brownish secondaries and primaries. Other examples are for: Red-tailed Hawk, Sandwich Tern, Swainson's Hawk, and Western Sandpiper.

16. Ethics and Conservation

To maximize their return to where you see them and their reproductive success, don't irritate birds or make them anxious. Here are some tips.

Latin Names for Species Mentioned in the Text

The common names are given alphabetically (over 4 pages), each with the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) Check-list of North American Birds.


The book's Index is missing! This is a major lack and a great disappointment. Instead, Sibley has left 5 blank pages for notes.

Birdsong by Don Stap

Interesting lightweight descriptions of recent investigations in birdsong, emphasizing the work of field observers (as opposed to laboratory researchers). Fairly light on science. No diagrams or graphs. The book is divided into sections and chapters, but mysteriously these are untitled, leaving the reader to fend for herself as to their topics.


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