Looking at Birds Through Creative Eyes

David Sibley's innovative books on species identification and behavior have become must-reading for many American birders; what's behind his passion for the feathered world?

  • Doug Stewart
  • Apr 01, 2003

HEAR that tinkling sound?" asks David Sibley.

Not really, but now that he mentions it, a faint, high-pitched trill is just audible over the rustle of wind-riffled pines and the soft whoosh of traffic farther away. Standing in a grove of red oak and white pine beside a pond near his home in Concord, Massachusetts, Sibley purses his lips and makes a harsh, scolding noise. He's imitating a wren or chickadee that's seen an owl. Aroused by the disturbance, small dark birds that have been hidden in the woods down by the water now flit into the nearby branches in twos and threes. "Dark-eyed juncos," he says quietly.


FIELD WORK: "My notebooks are filled with partial sketches of where I saw a bird just long enough to notice one particular thing," says Sibley, pictured here on a Massachusetts beach. The 6,600 illustrations in his bird guide are based on years of personal observations.

For the 41-year-old author and illustrator of the explosive best-seller, The Sibley Guide to Birds, such identification is second nature. David Sibley's brain is stuffed with a phenomenal compendium of avian information. Even before the birds darted into view, he knew that exactly three-and-a-half feathers on their tails would be white. And that when flushed they might sing tsititit tit but never tzew tzew tititititi tsidip—that would be the yellow-eyed junco. Now, less than a minute after he started calling, the trees around him are filled with a dozen or more chittering birds.

Somehow the spectacle of David Sibley standing in the woods surrounded by excited birds seems perfectly apt. A college dropout and self-taught artist, Sibley spent 15 years watching and sketching birds from Alaska to the Dry Tortugas, then cloistered himself for six more to write the text and paint the 6,600 watercolors for the book. It was a mammoth and risky undertaking—a life's work that has been compared to Samuel Johnson's 18th-century English dictionary, though Sibley was just 39 when he finished.

The work paid off. When his exquisitely detailed, 544-page guide to North American birds appeared in October 2000, critics hailed it as an instant classic. "I stand in awe; I have nothing but praise," an American Birding Association reviewer exclaimed. Despite its hefty size and list price ($35), The Sibley Guide sold out its first printing of 100,000 copies in just two weeks. More than 700,000 copies are now in print. Other books have followed: a superbly illustrated, 600-page Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior with text by a Who's Who of 43 coauthors; another solo effort, this time for beginners, called Birding Basics; and this April, a pair of pocket-sized guides to the birds of eastern and western North America.

Despite his success, Sibley clearly wasn't drawn to birding for the money. A lanky, introspective man, he has both an articulate self-confidence and a calm, mildly self-effacing manner that in the birding world counts as charisma. In the field, his encyclopedic knowledge and memory for detail is legendary. "Going birding with David is like going out and playing guitar with Eric Clapton," says Sibley's editor, George Scott of Chanticleer Press, which packages the field guides for publisher Alfred A. Knopf. "He's a virtuoso."

Sibley explains that he has always been fascinated by birds. In his tiny home studio, he works at a slanted drafting board resting on an old oak desk. Annotated sketches and well-thumbed field guides lie on surfaces here and there. Vying for his attention, a birdfeeder stands outside the window.

"It's a very poetic thing to see a bird fly overhead and disappear into the distance," he says. "And flight gives birds the power to turn up in unexpected places. You never know what you're going to see, even when you look out the window. Birds come and go at will. It makes anyplace you go bird-watching exciting, whether it's a city park or your backyard."

To the nonbirder, bird-watching may seem like a strange way to interact with nature: blurting out species names as you spot them, often competing with the person next to you to do so first. Sibley, for his part, is interested in much more than assigning a name to the birds he sees—his goal, after all, is to paint them in loving detail, from covert to auricular. Still, he defends bird identification as the heart of bird-watching. He chose to open Birding Basics with a line from Jim Wright and Jerry Barrack's book In the Presence of Nature: "A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but without a name it is simply a flower." Sibley elaborates: "The first thing you learn about a bird is its name, then you attach other information, like what it eats, what time of year it appears, what habitat it prefers and so on. It all follows from learning its name."

Like Roger Tory Peterson's classic bird field guide, first published in 1934, Sibley conceived, wrote and illustrated his first book by himself. He admires Peterson's (as a boy, Sibley pored over it under his covers at night), but in his own field guide he wanted more pictures, more plumages, more birds in flight, more songs and calls. Of the book he produced, he says, "This is the field guide I always wished I had in my own library."

His thoroughness is astonishing. His book has an average of eight full-color paintings for each species. Hawks and eagles are shown in flight from different angles, gulls in their first, second and third winter plumages, storm-petrels soaring, flapping, landing, swimming, even "foot-pattering" on the water when feeding. His notes on bird sounds include songs, warning cries, flight and display calls, and the begging cries of nestlings.

In his paintings, Sibley sought to show what's distinctive about each bird without exaggerating their markings. "I tried to simplify my illustrations just enough to eliminate extraneous details, like individual feathers, while keeping the important details. What I tried to show is what you actually see at a distance through binoculars."

Photo: © JOHN NUHN

HEFTY BOOK: More than 500 pages long, The Sibley Guide to Birds includes detailed information about feathers and other physical characteristics. It also has an average of eight color drawings for each of the 810 North American species described in its pages. Some, such as these hummingbirds (left), are shown in flight from different angles; others in various plumages.

Sibley has probably spent years of his life looking contentedly through binoculars. Many, if not most, people who spot a bird, of course, are hard-pressed to find it in the field guide they're holding before the creature flies away. Trying to draw in detail a bird perched briefly on a distant branch, not just copying its photograph (or visiting an aviary), would seem to be infinitely harder. Sibley explains that each illustration he makes is really a composite of many hours of observations spread over many years.

"My notebooks are filled with partial sketches of where I saw a bird just long enough to notice one particular thing about it,"he says. "But if you spend a lot of time birding, sooner or later you bump into an individual bird that you can watch for three hours." Yes, he insists, he'll see things in hour three he didn't notice in hour two. "With each sketch I get to know the bird that much better." Sibley is obviously a patient fellow.

He finds the hardest part of embodying a bird on paper to be simply getting its outline right. If the outline is off, nothing will fit—he compares it to starting out a map with a distorted outline of the United States and winding up with misshapen states. From his sketches and notes, he creates a pencil sketch that he scales up using an opaque projector. He traces the projected image at the size he wants, usually three times the published size. Then he gets out his paints.

With its 810 species of bird life, The Sibley Guide weighs more than two pounds and fits more comfortably in a backpack or bookshelf than in even a very large coat pocket. Sibley envisioned the readers as experienced birders who would use it to bone up at home or to confirm sightings they'd already made. He's been pleasantly surprised that beginning birders seem to be snapping it up.

The book's timing is excellent: Bird-watching is now a mainstream activity. The National Survey on Recreation and the Environment for 2000 estimated that 70 million Americans annually enjoy watching and identifying birds, more than triple the number of birders 20 years ago.

In his introduction, Sibley offers readers a few basic rules for getting started. Rule number one: "Look at the bird. Don't fumble with a book ... watch what the bird does, watch it fly away, and only then try to find it in your book." He also recommends sketching what you see as a way to hone your skills as an observer.

He himself has been drawing birds since he was five and planning his own field guide since he was 12. By then, he already knew hundreds of bird calls. His father, Fred Sibley, not surprisingly, is an ornithologist who was manager of bird collections at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History before retiring. His mother, Peggy, is a retired librarian. David recalls his father taking him and his older brother out bird-watching when he was in grade school. "Pretty quickly, it got so we wanted to go birding more often than he could take us," he says. "We'd nag him to go."

Intending to study ornithology himself, Sibley enrolled at Cornell University, but classrooms and lectures didn't hold his attention the way a live bird could. He dropped out after less than a year. His parents were mostly understanding, urging only that he "do something." And he did. He worked from time to time at the Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey, doing short-term jobs, and later led birding tours.

For the most part, however, he watched birds on his own. His low income for much of the 1980s was just enough to support a nomadic life-style. "For about eight years, I was living mostly in a camper-van," he says. He was in heaven. "I was getting to do virtually everything I wanted to do: hanging out in the mountains in Arizona and on the coast of California and the Florida Keys, just watching and sketching birds."

In the early 1990s, he settled down. He married biologist and fellow birder Joan Walsh; they now have two boys, ages 5 and 8. ("They have some interest in birds," he says, "but they're more interested in things they can catch, like salamanders and fish.") With his wanderlust satisfied, Sibley began planning his field guide in earnest. He had already published a number of illustrations, and his reputation was growing. A multiyear publishing advance allowed him to concentrate on turning his vast knowledge of birds into paintings and text.

Earlier, Sibley had toyed with the idea of supporting himself purely as a painter, selling his original gouaches to collectors. But he was always drawn back to the technical challenge of bird identification—illustrating precisely how to tell a perching northern flicker from its near twin, the gilded flicker, for example. To Sibley, the beauty of nature is in the details.

"As you get to know more about birds, you see how all the little bits of information fit together," he says. "It's like a giant web of details out there that form larger patterns. There's a beauty to this rhythm, this organized complexity of the lives of birds."

For all his success, Sibley regrets that his book work has cut into his birding time. Someday he hopes to travel to the central Aleutian Islands off Alaska, where a breeding colony of whiskered auklets lives. "That's the only North American breeding species I've never seen," he says. This may involve hitching a ride in a cargo plane from the military base on Adak Island, but if he can swing it, he'll go. "I'm sure I'll get there."

And if he does, it won't be just so he can make a better whiskered-auklet drawing. "I once drove from Georgia to Nova Scotia to see a Eurasian kestrel," he says a little sheepishly. "The Eurasian kestrel's not in my book. I just wanted to see it."

Birding neophyte Doug Stewart watches hawks and ducks from the kitchen window of his home in coastal Massachusetts.

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