Watching Little Dinosaurs
Review by August March
The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition
David Allen Sibley
Alfred A. Knopf
Here's a bookish scenario: You find yourself hanging with a verging-on-very-literate group of hipsters. Someone among them declares the book dead … as their index finger swirls on a little glass screen. To counter the incursion, you produce a copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition. Meanwhile, their battery goes dead, and you wander outside with your book and a good pair of binoculars to engage the natural world.
It will be a long while before there's a comparable mobile app for that; field guides such as Sibley’s are not only beautiful books in a purely physical sense. They also provide users with an expression of the beauty and order of science, rendered in practical and applicable terms.
Sibley’s guide covers the North American continent and the edges of the surrounding oceans. Examples of all the avian life in that realm, swimming, floating, flying—or in the case of the greater roadrunner, dashing about the desert—are brilliantly illustrated by the author. Sibley’s painting style is as detailed as it is dynamic, but his gesturalism never sacrifices accuracy. These digitized paintings are somewhat small, but all are gorgeous depictions of members of the class Aves.
Adding to the allure, the guide is organized in an engaging fashion. Succinct discussions of biology, geography, anatomy and the basics of field observation (aka bird-watching) are followed by a brief set of diagrams explaining the layout and information matrix used in the pages that follow.
The text of the tome is written in a no-nonsense tone, yet it's clear Sibley is passionate about his subject. Underlying all of that is a sense the author’s vast knowledge base and his keen sense of observation. Even casual readers will find themselves turning the pages to learn more about this bird or that.
Sibley's Guide is a large book. It is a heavy book, both physically and philosophically. Think about it this way: Birds are little dinosaurs—what’s left of the dinosaurs. One of their ancestors was a dinosaur with grasping hands and an upright posture called Maniraptora. Now there are more than 10,000 species of its descendants on our continent.
Don’t you want to carry around a text that tells all about that—the amazing part of life on Earth with feathers? It may not fit in your pocket or purse, but a volume like this won’t randomly switch off, either.
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