David Allen Sibley began seriously watching and drawing birds in 1969, at age seven. Since 1980 he has traveled throughout the North American continent studying the natural world, both on his own and as a leader of bird-watching tours. This intensive travel and study culminated in the publication of his comprehensive guide to bird identification, The Sibley Guide to Birds, followed by The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior, Sibley’s Birding Basics, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. He lives in Concord, Massachusetts.
David Allen Sibley is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com)
A Conversation with
David Allen Sibley
NATIONAL AUDUBON SOCIETY
SIBLEY Guide to Birds
Q: How long have you been painting, and when did you first begin painting birds?
A: I started drawing birds when I was 7 years old, and began by tracing pictures from a big
coffee-table book called Birds of the World with illustrations by Arthur Singer. Later, I would copy pictures free-hand from the same book and, finally, in third grade I took the plunge and started drawing from life.
I started painting much later and didn’t do a lot of painting until I was 18 or so.
Q: Why birds, and why the early interest in the subject?
A: My father is an ornithologist and my earliest memories are of the house filled with bird books and bird pictures. We spent a lot of time outdoors and a lot of time looking for birds. As a kid, my interest was broader than birds. I kept collections of butterflies and other insects, shells, rocks, plants, and I kept lists of reptiles and amphibians, mammals, fish and other animals that I had seen. But birds were, and still are, the most exciting to me. They have more “personality” than, for example, butterflies. I think the greatest part of their appeal to me, then and now, is the challenge of finding and identifying them.
Finding birds requires a lot of skills: one has to be physically fit and adventurous (for hiking into back country), willing to endure difficult weather conditions (on boats in the Bering Sea), possess sharp ears and eyes, and have the ability to process lots of subtle clues. You must apply this knowledge with a sense of where to look (either locating inconspicuous species in dense vegetation or picking one individual out of a large flock of similar species). The intellectual challenge of identifying birds is what really keeps me going, with the opportunity to learn new things every time I go in the field.
Q: When did this hobby become an avocation?
A: It became an obsession for me from very early on. In junior high school, I was keeping collections and lists of birds and other animals, and even started on various field guide projects, including a guide to all the living things of Connecticut (and there are lots of them).
Q: Who were your mentors?
A: My father of course, and my older brother; we took up birding together and pushed each other's obsessions with lists, collections, and knowledge. The late artist Arthur Singer painted the pictures that inspired me from first grade on, and I had an opportunity to take a painting seminar with him in the late 1970s which had a big impact on my artwork. Will Russell, the owner of WINGS, Inc. and an internationally-known birder, hired me as a tour guide for WINGS, which gave me an opportunity to travel throughout the continent. Will has given me lots of good advice and encouragment along the way.
Other artists who have inspired me include Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who was the first artist to paint really life-like portraits of birds based on field experience in the early 1900s. Don Eckelberry; and the great swedish painter Lars Jonsson whose lively, beautifully posed birds have just the right amount of detail. I’ve studied and admired his work since I first saw it in 1983.
Q: When did you decide to write a field guide, and how much time have you spent working on it?
A: I started playing around with the idea of doing a field guide when I was in junior high school, and started serious work on books of various scope just after high school. I went to Cornell for a year but dropped out to pursue birding opportunities, first as a hawk counter at Cape May, NJ, and later as a sound technician at Cornell’s Library of Natural Sounds, cataloging bird song recordings. It wasn’t until eight years later in 1988 that I actually said out loud to people that I was going to do a guide to the birds of North America, and then it was another 6 years of work before I came up with the final layout in 1994 and started painting the final draft.
Q: How is your guide different from existing guidebooks?
A: The layout is very different and it contains far more information than any other field guide. My book relies much more on illustrations, and shows more plumages, more subspecies, and many more birds in flight than any previous book. It contains more information on voice, range, and plumages.
I believe the average field guide user spends the vast majority of time looking at the pictures, and when I was developing this layout I based it on the premise that most of the text in current field guides is redundant. It either repeats information that is clearly visible, or adds words and phrases to make the important bits of text more “readable.” I wanted a book that would condense a huge amount of information into a portable size, and at the same time make the information “patterned,” logical, and accessible to any reader.
Q: Can you describe your technique? Do you work from photographs? Is it true that Audubon used to shoot birds and then paint them?
A: I start with a mental image or a field sketch and work on the shape of the bird. I usually just do one sketch but sometimes two or three before I’m happy with the proportions and the pose, then I put the sketch into a special projector I have (called an Artograph RT210—my indispensable studio tool). The projector allows me to project an image onto a sheet of paper and to adjust the size to get the position right, so I can project multiple sketches of a bird in different poses and correct the sizes as I arrange them on the finished plate. Or project one sketch with good proportions and change the posture as I trace the projected image at different spots on the plate—stretch the neck up, raise the tail, change the legs, etc. I usually make a very rough outline sketch on the plate and work on the details in the painting. I find that as long as the outline is accurate, I can fill in the details as I go and develop a good illustration. If the outline is wrong, there is no fixing it in the painting.
In painting I use opaque watercolors, or gouache, and work in mostly transparent layers until I reach the desired color and texture.
I have masses of files filled with magazine clippings, photographs, reprints of technical papers from ornithological journals, and of course all of my own notes and sketches from years in the field. So when it came time to illustrate any particular species I would simply pull out the file and search through my notes, photos, and papers for useful information, and try to synthesize all of it into the field guide. It led to lots and lots of small discoveries—certain call notes heard only in one region, or certain behaviors common in one species and not another. That was one of the things that made the work exciting and kept me going through the all the painting: I was learning new things every time I sat down to paint.
And, yes, Audubon did shoot birds he wanted to paint. I recently read in his journal about his experience sitting by a Turkey nest waiting for the eggs to hatch so that he could kill the chicks and pose them for a painting he had planned. Birds’ lives were cheap in those days, and he had no other reference material to work from. He was traveling on horseback in the wilderness!
I’ve had the opportunity to band birds at various places, and it has been of great benefit to me. You get a very different appreciation of birds when you hold them in your hand, and I think that understanding makes the illustration much better.
Q: Has there been an erosion of species since Audubon’s Birds of America was first published in 1884?
A: Yes. While only a few species have disappeared but many many species have declined in numbers. There’s a process of shifting bird numbers with changing habitat that has been going on since before Audubon’s time. Many species are more common than they were 100 years ago—the birds that thrive in suburban environments like robins, cardinals, etc.—while species that require large grasslands, wetlands, or unbroken forest tracts are much reduced and still declining. The challenge for us is to preserve what we have, and much of it can happen at a backyard level. Transforming a suburban yard from a flat expanse of mowed grass to a diverse habitat of shrubs and trees benefits all creatures.
Q: As an illustrator, was there a bird that was particularly difficult to capture, and why?
A: There were two difficult areas for me: one was birds that I didn’t know very well, that I had only seen a few times or, in some cases, never. These were very difficult to paint simply because I didn’t know how the painting was going and had to constantly refer to photographs, written descriptions, and my notes from museum specimens to make sure I was painting the right markings. For most, I knew when the paintings were right just by looking at them.
The other problem was a few species that I saw almost daily, but for some reason couldn’t paint satisfactorily. I had a hard time with crows aand a few other species. Maybe I just saw them so often that I never really looked carefully, or maybe my mental impression was much richer than what I could convey in a painting, either way I was never satisfied with those illustrations.
Q: What is a typical day like for you?
A: Not what it used to be like. Now I get up whenever my kids do (usually 6 am) have breakfast, relax for an hour or so, then start working on whatever task is most pressing. Lately that’s been editing, correcting color proofs, painting for volume 2, and answering questionnaires. When I was working on the book illustrations we lived at Cape May and I had a studio about a mile from our house. I would go there to work whenever my wife was not working, crank out a few paintings, and then go back home.
Ten years ago, before kids and before contracts, I would wake up early, ride my bike to some great birding spot, sit there studying and sketching birds for hours, ride home for a little research or transcribing notes or painting, and do it all over again the next day. That was interspersed with regular weeks-long trips to Alaska, Florida, Arizona, and wherever else my tours were going that year.
Q: How do your kids feel about your line of work?
A: They think it’s pretty cool that I paint birds, although they don’t seem to think it’s very unusual. They always point out birds to me when we’re outside and they especially enjoy the drama of “stalking” a bird like a robin on the lawn. One day last winter I stopped the car to look at some gulls on a pond and my 5-year- old son Evan said from the back seat “Birds, birds, birds, all you and Mom ever talk about is birds.” Which really isn’t true, the amount of bird talk has been going down steadily since he was born, but I guess Evan thinks there’s still too much.
Q: Do you have a favorite bird?
A: Several—I like birds that convey some quirky personality, like the Yellow-breasted Chat, Common Raven, and Long-eared Owl, and I’ve always liked the Red-breasted Nuthatch—one of the first birds I ever held in my hand at a banding station. In general, I’m drawn to the birds that are expert fliers: Shearwaters, hawks, swallows, etc.
Q: Is the pigeon a bird?
A: Of course it is, and you’d better watch what you say or the anti-defamation committee of the Pigeon Fancier’s Society will be after you!
Q: Do you ever get tired of looking at birds?
A: I haven’t had the opportunity recently but yes, I used to, after about three days of dawn to dusk birding, I would be looking for a break. But I was also very driven and was always able to find something bird-related to do. I would read some ornithology papers, do a painting, or just go to a new place and start watching there. Sometimes just shifting gears so that I was sitting and sketching instead of actively seeking birds was enough to keep me involved. Sounds pretty obsessive, I know, but now that the book is done I’m much better, thank you. Maybe my book, as the result of my own obsession, will free other people from the same obsession—they can simply enjoy the birds and look up the answers to their questions rather than having to figure it out for themselves.