David Allen Sibley is considered the most important illustrator of birds since James Audubon. In anticipation of his new two-part class at 92Y in December, we talked with him about his new book, What It’s Like to Be a Bird, the importance of community to birding, some of his most fascinating discoveries of why birds behave they do, and what humans have to learn from birds.
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What are some of the most exciting discoveries you made about birds when researching your new book, What It’s Like to Be a Bird?
So much new stuff! Killdeer and other ground-nesting birds are odorless during the nesting season. Feathers are waterproof because of their structure (not because of the preen oil). Birds balance while they sleep (their toes do not “automatically” tighten on their perch). Pigeons walking on treadmills do not bob their heads. And much more! I had daily revelations while I was researching. Admittedly, I’ve spent my life watching and drawing birds, not in scientific ornithology, but I thought I knew a lot about birds, and the research for this book showed me that a lot of what I thought I knew was wrong, and the reality is so much more interesting and fascinating. And this book just scratches the surface.
You famously make all of your drawings and paintings from life. How do you get a close enough look to get all the detail that’s in your paintings?
I do a lot of field sketching and always stress how important that is. It takes some effort, and a lot of time just watching, taking advantage of any bird that comes close enough for a good study. Often one of my sketches involves multiple different sightings over a period of an hour or more, just trying to track one bird and take in all of the details as I work on the sketch. That time in the field is critical to getting to know the birds, really understanding all aspects of their appearance and figuring out how to represent that in a drawing.
This year is the 20th anniversary of The Sibley Guide to Birds. What makes this book an enduring tool for identifying birds?
I think the same things that made it popular twenty years ago are still valid now. Bird identification requires a lot of information. It’s visual and auditory pattern-matching involving hundreds of different species of birds, each with multiple variations. The differences between species, and the variations within species, all follow predictable patterns (for example, every hawk is different from every duck in the same ways, in most species adult males have the most contrasting color patterns, etc.). What I set out to do in the Guide was to illustrate as many of those variations as possible and to organize the illustrations in a way that would reveal patterns and make all of the variation easier to understand. I think the popularity of the book comes directly from that.
Many people see different birds of the same species at different times, in different places, and somehow the Guide connects them all. Did you intentionally set out to achieve that?
It’s the birds that connect everything! The same species, and potentially the same individual bird, can be seen from Alaska to Florida and beyond. As a birder it’s really fun and reassuring to travel to far-flung places and see familiar birds. You can imagine that the Blackpoll Warbler you see on its summer territory in Alaska is the same one you see migrating through your back yard in New York, and then wintering in Colombia. I get a lot of pleasure out of seeing and understanding the rhythms and patterns of nature — the seasonal changes in the birds’ appearance and sounds, patterns of regional differences, the rhythm of migration and the different schedules of each species. I did make a conscious effort to convey some of that in the Guide, and that led me to the more grid-like arrangement of images and text
Is community important to studying and appreciating birds?
Oh yes! The community of birders is very vibrant and very important. A lot of information about birds is passed around by word-of-mouth, a sort of oral tradition. There are lots of subtle details about where and when to expect certain species — their favorite foods or places, and helpful distinguishing features — that aren’t written down anywhere, but are known to the avid birders in each region. I drew on a lot of those tips and insights when I was working on the Guide, and birders are so helpful and excited to share. It’s one of the great things about birding as a hobby, that many, many people can all enjoy watching the same bird. It’s very different from, say, fishing. If you find a good fishing hole you’re going to keep that secret, but if you find a rare bird the first thing you do is spread the word so everyone can see it.
You grew up in a very outdoorsy, nature-loving household. When did you first become fascinated by birds?
I’ve been intrigued by birds for as long as I can remember. That interest was certainly boosted by the fact that my father is an ornithologist, so there were bird books around the house and people talking about birds. When I was very young I really liked tracing pictures of birds from the books that we had, and then when I was seven I started going out with my father, looking for birds in real life, and drawing them.
How has the climate changed since The Sibley Guide to Birds was first published? Have bird behaviors changed in response to climate change?
Well, the climate has warmed quite a bit in my lifetime, and even in the 20 years since the Guide was published. And there are lots of noticeable changes in bird distribution. Here in New England, birds are arriving earlier in spring and staying later in fall into the winter. Southern species are moving north, some species are increasing and some are declining. It’s complex, and each species has its own unique story and is affected differently by the changes, but big shifts are already happening and will undoubtedly continue in the decades ahead.
Has the pandemic affected bird behavior?
Yes. One of the biggest changes of the pandemic quarantine is that it has reduced traffic and therefore noise in and around cities. There has been a lot of recent research on how birds change their songs to deal with noisy environments, and this year a lot of birds readjusted their singing behavior in those places that were suddenly much quieter.
Do you think people have anything to learn from the way birds behave?
One of the things I took away from my research for this book is that being a bird is very, very different from being a human. That’s not really a surprise, but the details of some of the differences (vision, breathing, etc.) are eye-opening. At the same time, it’s clear that birds, like all animals, are motivated by the fundamental desire to survive and reproduce. As they navigate the world, they are constantly weighing options and must be guided by something like feelings — of anxiety, satisfaction, etc. In that way we are not so different and whether birds experience “feelings” or not, this has made me think about how some of my own feelings could be the stirrings of instinct.