Nature field guides aren’t usually talked about, let alone anticipated. But the revised Sibley Guide to Birds, which went on sale yesterday, is a notable exception. Sibley is the book, the definitive standard, the argument settler, the Guinness Book of the birding world. It’s kind of a big deal.

But why do birders really care? The answer is that field identification isn’t always easy—not since Roger Tory Peterson challenged naturalists 80 years ago to make the identification without shooting the bird. Birds survive by hiding and moving fast once they’re in the open. A glimpse or sound may be all you get to work with, especially in spring when the nervous wood warblers migrate north. That’s where Sibley’s detailed watercolors come in handy.

What’s new about the second version? Those signature illustrations are now bolder and updated with rare birds, new range maps and the taxonomic changes that have taken place over the past 14 years (a lot more than you’d expect). And where the first edition’s cover featured a soaring predator, the Red-tailed Hawk, the new Sibley sports the petite Magnolia Warbler. (Birder trivia: Film cameos of the mighty Bald Eagle often get dubbed with the Red-tailed Hawk’s piercing k-e-e-e-e-e-r-r-r cry.)

I suspect that the change in cover bird tells us a bit about how the book, and maybe how David Allen Sibley himself, has changed. Sibley mentioned in a recent interview that the Magnolia Warbler was one of his “spark” birds. As a third-grader, he banded one of the flitting, colorful “maggies,” as they’re affectionately called, while birding with his father, a renowned ornithologist. No false bravado in this modest, sentimental choice of book art…oh Maggie, you stole my heart.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

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