field guide comments

Dennis Paulson dpaulson at
Tue Jun 5 12:43:45 PDT 2001

Hello, tweets.

I have too many field guides already, but I finally gave in and bought a
copy of Birds of Europe, by Killian Mullarney, Lars Svensson, Dan
Zetterström, and Peter J. Grant (Princeton University Press, 1999). As
we've been discussing David Sibley's book lately, I decided I would compare
the two. I recall there was some extensive discussion of European field
guides some time ago, but not in this context.

My immediate reaction is to say that both are superb books, and they have
many features in common, but I wish Sibley had modeled his book *exactly*
after the Svensson et al. book. The European book covers more species,
surprisingly, and has just about the same number of paintings per species
(but I really love the little habitat vignettes that accompany many of the
species), yet it is considerably smaller and weighs much less than the
Sibley guide and comes much closer to being carryable. Obviously it does
this by having the paintings average smaller (but not much smaller, and
some are about the same size; the difference is greatest in the passerines)
and more tightly crowded. Sibley's plates are awash in white space, while
the Euro book has the paintings much more compactly arranged, but in no way
at the expense of aesthetics, in my opinion. In fact, I'll confess I think
the Euro guide is more attractively arranged.

The Euro guide accomplishes exactly what Sibley set out to do, placing
individuals in similar plumages and poses in the same position in the space
allocated for the species. But the Euro guide does the sensible thing of
reducing the space when it should be reduced, e.g., for the Garden Warbler,
in which a single painting shows all the variation in the species, and it's
given less space than the other warblers. Sibley stays with his format, so
invariable birds (e.g., Dusky Warbler, p. 395) are merely given too much
space. I would compare the Brown Creeper, which takes up a page in Sibley
and could easily have been allocated a half-page, with the two species of
European creepers that take up only 1/4 of a page! Compare the gulls as
well, where they are a wee bit overlapped in the Euro guide but still show
all their characteristics.

The paintings in the Euro guide are spectacularly beautiful and accurate,
and I'm blown away by the fact that they were done by two artists (KM, DZ)
who were able to make their paintings look as if they were all done by the
same person. That is truly talented! If anyone has devised a way to
distinguish the style of these two so you can easily recognize which plate
was done by which artist, let me know. Rather than putting in paintings of
all species in flight, the Euro guide shows all birds that you are likely
to see in flight. Sibley is definitely the first to illustrate so many
passerine wing and tail patterns, a special feature of his book.

Finally, of course, the BIG difference in the two books is in the text.
The Euro guide has an extensive text on identification, taking up about
half of the book and making it of much greater utility in the field.
Sibley has done a fabulous job of putting significant points in his very
concise text, but even on the plates themselves, the European guide
furnishes a similar amount of text. And there is *so much* that needs to
be said about bird identification besides showing beautiful and accurate
plates. Although most of the text relates to identification, the Euro
guide has a section on voice equally as informative as that in Sibley and a
bit more about natural history. The maps are slightly smaller, but that's
all right, as Europe is smaller than North America.

I could say much more in praise of this European guide, but I recommend you
get a copy for yourself, even if you don't plan a trip to Europe, just to
have a copy of the real paradigm for bird field guides.

That's my 2 cents worth.


Dennis Paulson, Director phone 253-879-3798
Slater Museum of Natural History fax 253-879-3352
University of Puget Sound e-mail dpaulson at
Tacoma, WA 98416

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