Book Recollection: Sibley’s Birding Basics

Sibley's Birding Basics Greetings everyone! We just returned from a quick birding trip in Iowa over the Easter break. Nothing new from a bird species perspective, but think there are a few wall hangers so it was likely a productive outing. Been caught up in a number of projects as of late not to mention putting the final training runs in before the start of the race season scheduled for next weekend. As a result, going with a short post tonight – my body needs a rest from all the hiking.

Today’s featured topic is another book recollection – Sibley’s Birding Basics by David Allen Sibley. If you are familiar with birds at all you should recognize the author’s name. If not, you need to make your way to your local bookstore and pick up his Guide to Birds – it is an illustrated book which is a nice compliment to the references with actual photographs – you can always draw key features better than you can visualize them from an actual photograph (we’ll just gloss over the nuances of how he was able to draw them so well). This particular book was actually loaned to me by my brother Ron. He probably didn’t realize at the time it would take like a year for me to get through it (sorry). The interesting thing about this book is it isn’t a very large book. Not only is it thin (maybe a 1/4 inch), but it is also small in dimension. Don’t be fooled though, this is a very technical read and one you might find yourself repeating paragraphs just to understand the nuance or detail. It is a very sharp looking published product with gorgeous illustrations, but one thing turned out to be a tad annoying – the type font is too small. One of the reasons it took so long to read is it wasn’t convenient to travel with since it required me to drag along a pair of reading glasses or have really good light. Basically it became my quick nightstand reading material for those days I wasn’t too exhausted to get a few pages in.

From a summary perspective, this book is pretty technical. Recommend just focusing on a few key elements you can use in the field immediately – there is a lot of stuff in there and you might find yourself overwhelmed like I was was at the beginning. For me, the key characteristics that distinguish the Hairy Woodpecker from the Downy Woodpecker was worth the price of admission alone – distinguishing those two in the field is about as fun as trying to identify juvenile Sparrows. Without having them side by side to see the stature differences, they pretty both looked identical until reading the key tail barring difference and the fine feathers on the bridge of the Downy give it a smaller bill appearance. I recommend giving this book a read – maybe a number of reads taking a few more bits of knowledge each time to increase your bird brain.

Hit the jump to read some of the takeaways from my first read!


  • The Harry Woodpeckers has flatter nasal bristles compared to the tufted bristles of the Downy giving a Downy a shorter looking bill than the Harry – distinguishing these two birds is always a major pain for me, hoping this hint helps in the future (at this point any help is greatly appreciated)
  • Downy Woodpeckers have black bars on their outer tail feathers – not on the Hairy
  • If seen on a twig or stem, it is virtually always the Downies (Hairies prefer beefier branches and trunks)
  • Go gestalt during the ID phase – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts
  • Once again the author refers to Jizz as a derivation of General Impression and Shape – editors, please take a gander at the Urban Dictionary and consider coming up with a better acronym – also note the GIS in Europe is also a word I would shy away from
  • It was noted that some birds were given museum meaning they are named after distinguishing characteristics that you can really only see if you are holding them in your hand like the Ring-Necked Duck, Sharp-Shinned Hawk (…and we’ll just gloss over the fact that many of the reference drawings were made from dead birds).
  • Mockingbird’s sing their songs in groups of three or four where the Thrasher (same family) sing their songs only twice before moving on to another one.
  • White-Throated Sparrow song – Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody. Will have to listen for this the next time I am in the field.
  • With almost all birds, the feathers will grow out and then bend back towards the tail – overlapping like shingles
  • Lores – the patch of tiny bristly feathers that sit between the eye and the bill
  • Malar – the feathers that cover the side of the lower jaw – from mandible to the neck.
  • There are six basic feather patterns (streaked, spotted, barred, vermiculated, edged, notched





2 thoughts on “Book Recollection: Sibley’s Birding Basics”

  1. I’m glad you liked the book! Despite the cheapo, used-book sticker on the front, it cost me a fortune. 😉 And if it took you a year to read it, which I didn’t even notice, I’ve taken months to reply to this post about it.

    I didn’t remember about the black bars on the outer tail feathers of a Downy. Also, apparently the Hairy Woodpecker does have a larger bill period, not just that it looks larger. Somewhere I read that there is a black stripe on the back of the neck of one of these two species. Just looked it up:

    – The male Hairy’s red patch on the back of its head is often split in two, while the Downy’s is not.

    Here are some other differences I found online:

    – The Downy is a little over six inches tall, while the Hairy is almost 50 percent taller (sparrow vs. robin)

    – Downy Woodpecker has a larger white patch on the sides of the neck.

    – The drum of Hairy Woodpecker is extremely fast and buzzing, with at least 25 taps per second, but has long pauses of 20 seconds or more between drums.

    – Downy Woodpecker drums at a slower rate, only about 15 taps per second, and drums frequently, often with pauses of only a few seconds between each drum.

    – The call of the Downy Woodpecker is soft and downy, like a duvet. The call of the Hairy Woodpecker is loud and hairy, like a heavy metal band!

    – Downy Woodpeckers excavate smaller, round cavities. Hairy Woodpeckers have larger, more oval-shaped cavities.



    1. Thanks for the awesome comment – nearly as long as the actual post and uber-informative. My bird call recognition is horrific. I have learned some by associating it with everyday sounds – like the ping pong drop of the Field Sparrow, the metal sound of the Blue Jay and the who cooks for you of the Barred Owl. I know you think we know a lot more than that, but clearly not the expertise I bring to our bird outings. The size comparison really only works when they are together and then it is extremely noticeable. Of course, I have never seen them together ha! Now the white patch on the side of the neck – that is a definite tidbit I can use in the field.

      Thanks again!


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