Why do we need another bird guide? Isn't there one sticking out of the back pocket of every binoculars-owner in the world? Changes in range and modifications of taxonomy require updated editions of existing guides, but why a new one? Because, like species themselves, guides exist for different reasons, in different eras, and frequently profit from studying their competitors.

The new guide by distinguished birder, illustrator and writer David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Birds, has magnum opus and labor of love stamped all over it. To begin with, some statistics: 554 gorgeous pages in an oversized weather-resistant flex-paper format, describing 810 species and 350 regional populations, with more than 6,600 illustrations. The artwork is gorgeous and the writing clear and crisp. Species are shown both flying and perched or swimming, usually in every seasonal and juvenile variation of their plumage. Every species gets its own range map and detailed voice description. Families are introduced with pages of side-by-side comparison. And the format is identical throughout. No other bird guide is easier to get used to or more comprehensive than The Sibley Guide to Birds.

Much less comprehensive and more condensed than Sibley's book but still valuable, especially for beginners is Kenn Kaufman's Birds of North America. Kaufman has taken 2,000 photographs and digitally revised and enhanced them to clarify identification. There are two schools of thought about field guides. One maintains that paintings permit a more representative picture of a bird's likely overall plumage; the other insists that photographs work better than paintings, by providing a single example of a real bird, not a synthesis of traits. By exploiting the technological possibilities of the computer age, Kaufman aimed for the virtues of both methods. He has largely succeeded, and in the process created a handy, pocket-size guide that is easy to use.

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