In the days when phone books were still widely used, I greeted the arrival of each new one by first looking up my own name and number, then the listings of friends and relatives. It was an odd ritual — perhaps a small way to reassure myself, through the certainty of print, that my private corner of the world was still intact.
I do something similar when a new bird guide arrives, as they tend to do in my line of work. Because I sometimes write about birds, book publishers send me their field guides, hoping I’ll talk them up. The new second edition of “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America,” which crossed my desk the other day, features some 700 species, up from the 650 birds chronicled in the first edition published in 2003.
The extra material seemed like a great chance to learn something new, but I introduced myself to the book the way I always break in the latest field guides — by looking up birds I see every day. I checked out the entries for the cardinal and blue jay, chickadee and brown thrasher, goldfinch and titmouse, all regulars around my suburban yard.
In bird-watching, as in so much else in midlife, maybe I’ve become less interested in the new, more interested in seeing the familiar in new ways.
The Sibley of the Sibley bird books is David Allen Sibley, a bird illustrator widely seen as the heir of Roger Tory Peterson, whose field guides were a fixture among generations of bird watchers. Birders often refer to Peterson field guides as “the Peterson,” an acknowledgement of his stature among naturalists.
Like Peterson, who died in 1996, Sibley writes and draws with amateurs in mind, using bird pictures and prose that resemble all-points bulletins for crooks on the lam. The descriptions are usually just a paragraph, assuming a birder with not much time to identify his quarry before it flies out of view.
Sibley populates his entries with pictures of each species in flight, in its male and female plumage, and, when necessary, various seasonal colors. To squeeze in everything and keep his field guides a portable size, he often uses small images that are harder for a middle-aged eye to scan. I like having the larger illustrations in my old Peterson guide for a backup.
The take-along format of field guides is competing these days with another compact source of bird-watching information — the tutorials a nature-lover can easily find on his smartphone.
Digital technology offers some nice advantages over traditional field guides, including ready access to the sound of bird song. I like those windfalls of progress, but I’ll keep my bird books around, too. It’s comforting to see page after page of buntings, sparrows, wrens, hawks and gulls — a story of infinite variety, in which I’m never quite sure what will happen next.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.