Comment on colors and maps in the Sibley Guide to Birds

When The Sibley Guide to Birds first appeared the colors were criticized. In particular the brightness of certain rufous colors (e.g. Brown Thrasher) and blue colors (e.g. Jays), which seem too intense, and some gray species (e.g. gulls) which appear too bluish. Efforts to correct this are ongoing, but the process is not as simple as just “taking out some blue ink” or “darkening the rufous areas”, and will almost certainly involve retouching original art and rescanning selected paintings (much of the trouble is with the original art). People often ask me if I am happy with the colors in the book, and I certainly am. The original paintings are rather bright, showing the birds at their best, brightest, and most contrasting, as if on a sunny day. The reduction and printing enhanced the colors throughout, creating a rich, bright look to the whole book, and in a few cases pushing the colors beyond the range of normal. When looking at the colors in the book bear in mind that our color perceptions of birds are controlled by lighting: a Brown Thrasher in sunlight looks much brighter than one in shadow, and there is of course no practical way to show such variation in a book. Similarly, the colors in the book itself appear to change under different lighting conditions, compare the appearance of the pages under fluorescent light with that under sunlight.

Maps generated the most criticism, and I suppose rightly so. The attempt to show migration routes and vagrant records on a small field guide map was, in my opinion, successful, but many people pointed out that the green dots showing vagrant records are often not placed accurately. My intention was simply to show the broad pattern of such records for a given species, rather than details of individual records. In that sense the system works, but I agree that the dots imply a kind of precision that is lacking in the actual maps. These maps were reviewed by experts from every state and provice, and completely revised maps are now published in the Sibley Field Guides to Eastern and Western Birds (the original maps are still in all printings of the Sibley Guide to Birds).

11 thoughts on “Comment on colors and maps in the Sibley Guide to Birds”

  1. Judith Siverson

    The brown thrasher thrives in the summer in southern Florida and mates and hatches young here also.

  2. Judith Siverson

    Is there a picture of the female short tailed hawk or a juvenal? I have a picture of either a juvenal or a female short tailed; known by the adult male sitting on my feeder with his call and their call, subsequently.

  3. Judith Siverson

    There are a mix of female mallards and mottled ducks. I’ve been here 2-1/2 years and have yet to see a male mallard. Interbreeding?

  4. Judith Siverson

    The black bellied whistling ducks look like they have a “mohawk” hair do on their heads and upper neck.

  5. Where do you provide a key to the map colors? I don’t see that in BIRDS EAST or anywhere online.


  6. Philip S. Taylor

    Hello David: First let me congratulate you on your fine guides. They are my first, go-to choice in the field and at home. On page 4 of your 2nd Edition, I believe the two hybrid geese illustrations in the lower right have their bold text identifiers transposed. My copy is a first printing, so I do not know if this has been corrected in more recent printings. Best regards.

  7. Hi, Love your guide, excellent talent you have.
    I too do not have the map color index in my book (The Sibley Guide to Birds) I have the North America region map on page 10, but not the color guide for maps in book. Could someone post photo of guide or list what each color means.
    Thank you

  8. Larry Langstaff

    In the reprinted editions of your Guide to the Birds, did you correct the headwaters of the Yellowstone River in Montana on the map inside the back cover?

    It really makes no sense to show a river coming almost straight north out of Wyoming leading into the Yellowstone River as it flows northeast toward North Dakota. I grew up in Billings Montana, along the Yellowstone River. Your map is wonky if it does not show the Yellowstone River coming out of the northwest corner of Wyoming, out of Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park.
    I preordered your book when it first came out and boom, in the first minute I noticed the “error” in the depiction of the main river flowing through the southern part of Montana!

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