Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review: Birds of Europe: Second Edition

Ever since the publication of its first edition in 1999, Birds of Europe by Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney, and Dan Zetterström has been regarded as a standard among field guides. The authors just published a second edition, which incorporates new methods for separating some familiar species and taxonomic changes that have occurred since 1999. The new edition has accounts for 41 new species, as well as improved accounts for some distinctive subspecies, so that many plates have been redesigned. Birds of Europe covers Europe east to the Urals and Caspian Sea, North Africa (south to 30°N), and a portion of the Middle East that borders the Mediterranean or Black Sea. The guide gives full treatment to 713 species and covers 91 others (extralimital or exotic birds) in brief.

The introduction includes helpful diagrams of bird plumage and defines birding terms that might not be familiar to all readers, such as names for plumage cycles and body parts. It explains how molt cycles work and how these can be used in the identification process. It also has advice for learning how to identify birds.

Birds of Europe is slightly taller and thicker than The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, but smaller than The Sibley Guide to Birds.* It feels slightly heavier than The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. It is small enough to fit in a coat pocket, but too large for pants pockets. According to the preface, the number of pages in this edition is about 10% more than in the first edition. The book is on the large side for a field guide but definitely portable enough to be used in the field.

Birds of Europe has some of the best illustrations I have seen in any field guide. Illustrations are of high quality and show most plumage types for each species. Birds within a family are shown in the same postures to allow for easy comparison of similar species. In addition to the standard poses, the guide shows images of birds within their natural habitat, in some typical behavior that a birder might encounter. Gulls, for example, as shown loafing on a sandbar; Common Buzzard is shown with a rabbit under its talons; rails are shown foraging in a marsh; Dipper is shown on a snowy streambank. These illustrations are valuable as they provide hints about where to expect a species to show up and what it might be doing. In addition to illustrations, there are notes on habitat, identification, and voice for each species. These accounts are presented on pages facing the plates for easy reference between the two. The identification notes are often quite detailed, especially for difficult species.

Difficult families, such as gulls and shorebirds, have lengthy introductions with tips for identifying species within the group. The introduction for gulls explains how molt cycles work in that family. It includes illustrations for the complete cycles of Black-headed Gull (representing two-year gulls), Common Gull (for three-year gulls), and Herring Gull (for four-year birds). Species accounts for gulls generally only illustrate the winter plumage for each cycle. Most families do not receive such detailed treatment.

If there is a drawback to this guide, it is that many of the passerine species are not illstrated in flight. I find flight illustrations useful even on perched birds because birds do not always present themselves in the side view shown in most field guides. A flight illustration can show features of the back or underside that are not as obvious in a side view.

Birds of Europe: Second Edition is the best field guide I have yet seen and surpasses even David Sibley's excellent work. North American birders probably do not need it for birding on this continent, as the most likely vagrants from Europe are adequately treated in North American field guides. However, if you are birding in Europe, if you want to seek out European vagrants in North America, or if you just want to look at better illustrations of Europe's avifauna, this is the guide to get.

* I compare new field guides to these two guides since most North American birders will be familiar with them.

Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney, and Dan Zetterström. Birds of Europe: Second Edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. 448; illustrations and maps. $29.95 paper.

This review is written on the basis of a review copy of the second edition provided by Princeton University Press.