“I think that as our lives become more and more divorced from nature and the natural cycles, we crave some connection to it.”
Artist, writer, and naturalist David Allen Sibley is author and illustrator of a series of natural history books including The Sibley Guide to Birds, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. The Sibley Guide to Trees of North America was published last fall to great acclaim. Scott & Nix recently interviewed him from his home in Concord, Massachusetts.
You were recently in Montana. What were you doing out there?
I was leading a birding workshop at a fantastic Nature Conservancy property called Pine Butte Guest Ranch. It’s a spectacular setting and a good cause, and the birding is not too shabby either, with an interesting mix of east and west and mountain and prairie.
You went to Asia to bird for the first time this year. What was that like?
It was really startling and mind-expanding! I went to Thailand because one of my all-time most-wanted birds—Spoon-billed Sandpiper—is on the verge of extinction but still winters there in small numbers. We were successful at finding at least seven Spoon-billed Sandpipers and spent about eight days studying and sketching them. Looking at sandpipers felt familiar enough, even though most of the species were different, but as soon as I got into any other habitats, the birds were totally unfamiliar—babblers, barbets, minivets, etc.—I couldn’t even place birds in a family!
Do you sketch a lot when you’re out birding in a new place?
I always do some, but it takes a lot of time and some trips are more compatible with a lot of sketching. Most of the time involved in sketching is just watching—looking through a telescope or binoculars, getting to know a bird. Ideally, I can watch a bird for a few minutes, do a few quick sketches, watch for a few minutes more, revise the sketches or make new ones, watch more, and so on. So even on a trip like Thailand, that was solely for studying and sketching, I really only worked with about twenty-five species.
Sketching, even for non-artists, is really enjoyable and useful in learning more about birds.
Absolutely. Sketching forces you to look at every part of the bird, every detail, and try to convert it into a few lines on paper. I think what we normally perceive is just a few of the highlights, the most striking features—like the crest and red bill on a cardinal—and never really look carefully at the rest of the bird. But when you sketch you can’t just draw a crest and a red bill, you have to see the color of the throat and the shape of the forehead and all the rest.
You photograph birds, too, right?
Some, yes, and I do a lot more now that digital photography makes it so easy and so immediate. Whenever I can I try to look at the bird first and do some sketches, and use photography as back-up. Years ago I tried to take my own reference photos of birds in the wild and (back in the days of film) I would get slides back from the developer and sometimes I’d have no recollection of seeing the bird that was in those pictures! I realized that when I was photographing I was concentrating almost entirely on the camera—focus, lighting, framing the shot, and tripping the shutter at the right moment—and not really looking at the bird. So I was stuck trying to interpret and sketch the bird later, in the studio, from my photographs, instead of being able to interpret in sketches done on the spot. I decided to go back to sketching, and leave the photography to the photographers.
It must be nice to get back to more birding this past year after working on the Sibley Guide to Trees for so long.
It is, but I never really left birding, of course. In the first few years of working on the Guide to Trees I was constantly distracted by birds when I was doing field work. I would settle down to study and sketch a tree and then hear some bird call and pick up my sketchbook to go chase it.
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It is, but I never really left birding, of course. In the first few years of working on the Guide to Trees I was constantly distracted by birds when I was doing field work. I would settle down to study and sketch a tree and then hear some bird call and pick up my sketchbook to go chase it. Gradually, as I learned more about trees and the questions got more interesting, it got easier to ignore the birds. When I go in the field now I’m looking at both birds and trees, and even getting distracted from the birds sometimes because I see an interesting tree.
Birders really seem to love to learn their trees.
Yes, there’s a really high level of interest. But birders are interested in everything. I know I am, and trees are just a very conspicuous and integral part of nature study. That’s one of the big reasons I chose to do a tree guide. You can’t look at birds without noticing trees, and the birder/naturalist is driven to name and classify things as a way to understand them better.
The Guide to Trees has many thousands of illustrations, like your bird books. You went from gouache to acrylic paints for that book. Why the switch?
I’ve always had a hard time getting really good rich green colors with gouache; any saturated color is hard to achieve with gouache, but green seems particularly difficult. Also, the smooth satin texture of leaves with subtle highlights and shadows is very hard to get with gouache. It can be done with a wash of very wet paint, but that’s hard to control and almost impossible to make adjustments to later. Acrylic seemed like a good choice to solve both of those issues, and after a year or two of practice I developed some techniques that were easy and gave good results, so I was very pleased I made the switch.
Have you gone over to acrylic for birds, too, or was that just for trees?
I have painted a few birds with acrylic, and it works well for some purposes, but not for field guide style illustrations. I think I would still choose gouache for the Guide to Birds. It just does a better job of capturing feather textures and the subtle variations in color, and it’s a lot easier to control small details.
You’re planning to revise The Sibley Guide, aka “Big Sibley”. Will you be repainting some birds for that?
Yes, I’m hoping to be able to do a full revision in the not-too-distant future, and that would involve a lot of work revising the existing art, as well as replacing and adding some new illustrations and even adding a few more species.
It’s been over ten years since it came out. Do you feel you’ve learned more about birds since the first book?
Of course, I learn new things every time I go in the field. There are so many new bird books being published, so much new research, and so much information flowing around the internet, it’s just a flood of new ideas and new information about birds. Most of the basic information remains the same, but I would make a lot of changes in the details of a new edition.
You’ve been blogging off and on over the past several years and one of the prevalent themes is variation in birds. It’s one of the fundamental parts of identification, but it’s so much more isn’t it?
Yes, variation is never just “random variation,” there’s always a pattern to it, so if you can find the limits of the variation and understand the patterns it gives you another layer of understanding of the birds. One example: I’ve been looking a lot recently at distinguishing males and females of common species. In some species the differences are obvious and well-known, but I’m finding that in virtually all species there are differences. If you see a pair of Gray Catbirds, or Chipping Sparrows, or White-crowned Sparrows, or Ovenbirds, and on and on, you can tell which is the male and which is the female just by their plumage. That can lead to new insight into their behavior, or discovering differences in size or posture or other ways to distinguish the sexes.
The study of variability is key to being a better birder, isn’t it?
Identifying birds is all about understanding patterns in the natural world. You learn that nuthatches move in a certain way and all nuthatches do and only a few other species do the same. Or that certain species of birds are found in certain habitats at predictable times of year. Or that most warblers in the genus Dendroica have wingbars and tail spots, while most other warblers do not. Advances in field identification all involve the discerning of more detailed patterns of variation. So hawkwatchers begin by learning that buteos have a different shape from accipiters, then that each species of buteo differs from the others, then that adults and juveniles have different shapes. Each layer of understanding leads to quicker identifications.
Although there is nothing particularly new about the notion of a “holistic” approach, it seems like birders, more and more, are putting birds in context to their habitats, vocalizations, behaviors, migration times, etc.
I think this is all part of the increased sophistication of identification techniques. As we use a finer-scale understanding of the patterns of variation, and weigh probabilities of multiple subtle clues, it opens the door to using lots of other probabilistic clues like time of year, habitat, subtle impressions of calls and behavior, etc. We’ve come a long way from the true “field marks” that were the centerpiece of Peterson’s first field guide, like the white tail tip of Eastern Kingbird. A lot of the newer and more subtle clues that have been discovered through the cumulative experience of hundreds of thousands of birders can all be passed along and taught to new birders.
Birders cite locations with GPS, record and play vocalizations, check other sightings online (eBird), share info with other birders on dislists, etc. Birders really seem to be adopting the digital tools out there.
It’s true, birding seems to be uniquely positioned to benefit from all kinds of technology. Birders use all of it because it really helps to make the hobby easier and more enjoyable. Birding is very location-based, so GPS is incredibly useful for getting to out-of-the-way sites and also for describing where a bird was found. Birding is very “newsy,” with a need for current info about sightings, even minute-by-minute, so e-mail groups, Twitter, text-messaging, cell phones, are all used for passing along information. Sound is a big part of birding, so having a pocket-sized device that can store and play thousands of bird call recordings is like a dream come true.
Do you have any sense of birding becoming more popular? It seems that over the past ten to fifteen years it’s really grown. Is it generally because we seem to be a more “outdoorsy” nation?
It’s definitely become more popular, but I don’t think we’re becoming more “outdoorsy,” but less—the increase in birding is a reaction to the diminished nature in our lives. I think that as our lives become more and more divorced from nature and the natural cycles, we crave some connection to it. I do think we feel a fundamental desire to be connected to nature, and birding just happens to be one of the most interesting and fun ways to develop that connection.
People often ask “how often do you bird,” but I have a hunch you’re really birding all the time.
Yes, you could say that. Like any birder, I’m always aware of birds wherever I go, even walking down a city street or at the movies. But “going birding” with binoculars and a few hours to spend just trying to find and identify birds is different, and for a serious birder, casual encounters with birds are no substitute for “birding”.
Do you have favorite books about birds or with birding as a theme?
I really enjoyed reading Jonathan Rosen’s book The Life of the Skies and he has a lot of insight into the question of why we go birding. And I’ve always enjoyed reading Audubon’s journals for a glimpse into life in the early 1800s, and the life of a birder and bird illustrator in that era. And for inspiration I browse art books like Lars Jonsson’s Birds: Paintings from a Near Horizon.
A SIBLEY BIRDER’S BOOKSHELF
LINKS TO RECOMMENDED READS
The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Sibley
The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior, David Sibley
Sibley's Birding Basics, David Sibley
The Life of the Skies, Jonathan Rosen
Lars Jonsson's Birds, Lars Jonsson
Selected Journals and Other Writings, John James Audubon
John James Audubon: The Making of an American, Richard Rhodes