Identification Guide to European Passerines (5th edition)
By Lars Svensson
Lullula Förlag, 2023
Pbk, 448pp; many black-and-white illustrations
ISBN 978-91-985166-8-5; £19.99

‘The Green Guide’. ‘The Ringer’s Bible’. Or simply just ‘Svensson’. The fourth edition of the Identification Guide to European Passerines (IGEP) went by a variety of names and was an ever-present companion for just about every European ringer – and many European birders, too. Despite being published in 1992, it stood the test of time well. Nonetheless, a wealth of new information on ageing, sexing and identification has been published in the three decades since the fourth edition was produced and an updated edition, even if it didn’t feel overdue, is certainly timely. Enter IGEP 5. The green cover is gone; the latest edition is clad in a more subtle burgundy.

The book starts, as with the previous edition, with a 43-page introduction that explains how to use the guide and general techniques for ageing and sexing. These pages shouldn’t be skipped by, as they offer a wealth of information that sets a solid foundation for ageing and sexing. The text in the introduction – as in the rest of the book – is well written, concise and highly informative. 

Virtually all of the rest of the book is taken up by the species accounts. Each starts with the names in various languages, followed by details of species identification. There is then a section on range and variation – which varies from just a few sentences in the case of a species with no variation to a couple of pages for a species with many subspecies, such as Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava. Next is an overview of the species’ moult strategy, notes on sexing, and notes on ageing through the year. IGEP is perhaps not the most extensively illustrated of the ringing guides available – most species receive just a few choice line-drawings – but this, in my view, adds to its strength; some other guides on the subject present a dizzying array of images and figures. There’s no doubt that IGEP remains the clearest and most pedagogic overview available for European passerines.

The author takes a rather conservative approach to ageing in many cases – ‘intermediates best left unaged’ is a common mantra – and, while individual ringers may wish to push the boundaries of ageing a little further, especially if they have extensive experience of a given species, Svensson’s approach is a sensible one to follow. This is true even when it comes to some familiar species, such as Goldcrest Regulus regulus, in which a not-insignificant number of individuals show a tail shape that is neither clearly adult-like nor clearly juvenile-like. By following the guidelines for ageing given in this guide, including which birds should and which shouldn’t be aged, you won’t go wrong.

IGEP 5 covers 267 species, 37 up on the fourth edition. This is in a large part down to a number of splits (e.g. Western Curruca hortensis and Eastern Orphean Warblers C. crassirostris) and in a slightly smaller part due to a small number off ‘truly new’ additions (e.g. Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans). A few other species get mentioned within the species account, for example Kamchatka Phylloscopus examinandus and Japanese Leaf Warblers P. xanthodryas, which are both mentioned within the entry for Arctic Warbler P. borealis. As with the previous edition, coverage is strictly Palearctic, with comprehensive treatment of all of the regularly occurring European passerines and a liberal amount of selective extrapolation to the south and east – for example, Atlas Flycatcher Ficedula speculigera and Temminck’s Lark Eremophila bilopha of North Africa both make it into the book, as do a reasonable list of rare vagrants from Asia. North American vagrants are not included and the reader is instead (sensibly, given the extra material that including North American species would add to the book and given the areas of expertise of the respective authors) directed to Peter Pyle’s Identification Guide to North American Birds.

The recommendation that you ‘must have’ a particular book is often an over-used statement – but in this case, if you’re a ringer in Europe, this really is a book you must have. Non-ringers, too, will find the guide to be of use when attempting to age and sex birds in the field, although a certain degree of prior knowledge – and good views! – will often be required. All in all, ‘the burgundy guide’ follows on from where ‘the green guide’ left off as the gold standard for ageing and sexing of European passerines.

Stephen Menzie

Issue 10
Start Page: 
Display Image: 

Stay at the forefront of British birding by taking out a subscription to British Birds.

Subscribe Now