David Sibley Exhibits Exactitude and
Warmth in his Amazingly Comprehensive Sibley Guide To Birds
The Sibley Guide to Birds
by David Allen Sibley
Alfred A. Knopf, Chanticleer Press
544 pages, Flexible Binding
9.75 x 6.5 x 1.25 inches
2 lbs. 10 ozs.!!
810 species, 6600+ illustrations
After its gazillion 'pictures', the first thing I noticed
opening David Sibley's long-awaited field guide were the weights.
Not the book's substantial heft, but the incredible lightness of
being a bird! Why, it'd take 152 Wilson's Warblers, 38 Swainson's Thrushes,
or 3 Roadrunners to measure up to the tome's whopping 2.6 pounds (1175 grams)!
Given the size and weight, the book's overall utility seemed to me to be less
that of a field companion than as an armchair reference manual. That is,
until I took it sparrowing at a local public garden. Slung in a shoulder bag
with my makeshift plastic page marker at the start of the impressive
32-page sparrow section, the Sibley Guide did provide crystal clear field
marks for the birds at hand: fall adult Lincoln's, fall adult and
juvenile Chippings and White-throateds, reddish and grayish Savannahs,
first winter Swamps. Even if I did have to flip a fair number of pages,
the reassuring (and needed) details were right there and unambiguous.
So, if not quite a field guide, the Sibley Guide serves at least a back-seat
or back-pack guide!
Birders curious about some of the behind-the-scene details of
how David Sibley came to write and illustrate his Sibley Guide To Birds
will want to read the following interview with journalist and birder
David Sibley assented to a phone interview from his home in Concord, Massachusetts
between excursions for his book signing tour. The following is the edited text of that
FB: How did growing up with your dad (Fred Sibley) have direct or
indirect bearing on this book?
DS: It directly created my
interest in birds. What really hooked me is when I was seven he was
director of Point Reyes. There were lots of 20-ish serious
birders around there. I learned to band birds, and the experience of
holding the birds in my hand and seeing them up close and feeling them made
it much more real than looking at them through binoculars.
FB: What did you hope to accomplish when you set out to create a
new field guide?
DS: I set out to create complete and accurate IDs of every
species and subspecies in North America, to make it the one source book
birders could go to for anything they wanted. It was clear that it wasn't all
going to fit into a single book. A book that people could rely on to
have accurate illustrations and use in the field. One that's easy
on the eyes and artistic enough to make people want to just browse it.
One that's easy to use, organized so they could quickly and easily
find visuals, songs, calls, habits, and plumage.
FB: Did you have certain expectations of birders' needs and
uses for this book?
DS: When I started birding, I had my father to help ID birds
so I didn't need a field guide, but I went to guides looking for more
detailed identification, and to confirm field marks I'd seen. When
I was leading tours in the 80s & 90s for Wings, it was frustrating to
point out a bird, show it in the field guide, and then have to explain
why it didn't look like the illustration! The book wouldn't
back me up on text either; people would say, "It doesn't say
that in here!"
FB: In the intro you wrote that you
wanted to document "every plumage, every subspecies, at rest and in
flight." Was there any/much hedging and compromise?
DS: Writing was a challenge because space was so limited. Having
text integrated with artwork meant putting a few words in a certain place
to give them added significance. Placement was also an issue. Some species
I wish I could have added more illustrations. For example, semi and least
sandpipers, because of shape and long legs, I could only show 3 standing birds
of each species, there's so much variation, I wish I could have shown bright and
drab, fresh and worn plumage! Some where I wish I could have added more
text, such as sandpipers, gulls, and terns, where ID gets complicated.
Yet it defeats the ultimate purpose of the book to condense text and
streamline book into manageable format.
FB: As for condensing text, there isn't much on habitats.
DS: I made a conscious decision to cut down on habitat
information, because it can be so variable. People need to learn that
for their local area, and as people go out they find these things out
for themselves. I couldn't cover it in enough detail to make it
really useful. For example, Swainson's Warbler is scarce and local,
but not if you live in Virginia's Dismal Swamp.
FB: What design ideas crystallized for you on your 1993 Europe
DS: I'd already worked on the idea that illustrations would
be the core of the book. They should be arranged to facilitate
comparisons, so you could flip through and match pictures, that's
how most people use a field guide. I was torn between Lars
Jonsson's very artistic Birds of Europe, and the
Mitchell Beazley Birdwatchers Pocket Guide by Peter Hayman.
It's tiny but technical and detailed, with two species per page,
top and bottom. I held them both up as examples of outstanding field
guides, but with very different approaches. The key to me would be to
have all the illustrations perfectly comparable to all the others.
So, when I started working on pages, at one point I put all plumages
of Horned Grebes on the left and those of Eared Grebe on the right, and
that was my eureka moment! It dawned on me in a few minutes that the
whole book could be done that way. It would answer all the questions
I'd been struggling with. The format for the entire book was very deliberate:
every illustration shows the bird facing right; flying birds on top.
FB: So you had set yourself a modus operandi for planning and
executing each family or plate?
DS: It's so
standardized that I could think of any species and know what I could do
with it. It became very simple to design the book, and that was a great
FB: So was Jonsson your artistic model, that
is, the inspiration for your very warm yet precise visual style?
DS: I discovered his work in 1980 and ever since he's been
my ideal model of bird illustration. He does more fine art paintings
now, but still does some ID drawings, such as Yellow-Legged Gull and
Lesser Black-Backed Gull recently, for several European journals. I
studied his published works.
FB: Though you are sole author and artist, no book this big
takes to the shelf without a lot of committee work. Were there some tough
DS: No, Chanticleer was very
accommodating! They selected the fonts and details of page design, the
look of the range maps was the design department of the press. We had
some discussions, but I always felt that the final decision was mine.
FB: Which illustrations proved the most difficult?
DS: Well, there are two categories: the rarest and commonest!
Most difficult were species I have never seen [Whiskered Auklet,
Eurasian Dotterel, Murphy's Petrel]. I had to rely on photos and my
notes from museum specimens. At the other extreme, Starlings and Crows
turned out very difficult to paint. I made a conscious effort to study
them in the field, but when it came time to paint them, my mental image
might have been too all-encompassing. Summarizing them in a few
illustrations wasn't possible. I tried to mix many varied
experiences into a single painting.
FB: Your favorite plates?
DS: I'm reluctant to name a favorite, because
people will look at it and then say, "well that's wrong!"
I'm very happy with the way the sparrows turned out.
FB: Loons first, finches last. Did you prepare the book in
DS: Not really, I jumped all around at first, but I did end with
sparrows and finches.
FB: Can you candidly state which (if any) plates you're not
quite happy with?
DS: I shouldn't say. I can look at
every plate and see things I want to change. To me the book is just a
summary. I see thousands of unanswered questions and details that need
FB: So there'll be a two-volume edition in
DS: Actually, a second volume is nearly ready on natural history.
The text is by various experts and I've done illustrations for it.
We're reviewing the texts now and it'll be out next fall. But
I look to re-writing a second edition: this is not the last word
FB: How do you go about synthesizing data
from your experiences, textual descriptions, skins, and photos?
DS: When I sit down to paint, I pull out a file for each genus,
and spread it on my desk. Magazine clips, written texts, photos,
notebooks. I look it all over, read the notes and assemble all the
information in my head before I begin, then refer to it when I start. I
found it enjoyable and satisfying. In many cases I was reading notes and
looking at sketches I'd made 15 years ago. I made a lot of neat
discoveries. I had independently written down call notes of various
subspecies that were consistent six or seven different times.
FB: I liked the weight info.
DS: I learned a lot. The Pied-billed Grebe weighs 450 grams, the
Snowy Egret 360 grams. It's all in Barney Dunning's book, CRC
Handbook of Avian Body Masses; over 6,000 species. The weights are
single-number averages and not always comparable, yet it does help to
give an overall idea of the size of the bird. Blackpolls may weigh from
9 grams to 23 grams; a small, trim male Red-Tailed Hawk is 650 grams while the
largest females are over 2 kilograms!
FB: What are the commonest questions asked you that
DS: The #1 question is: "How long did this book take?"
It took six years to do all the final draft work since the eureka moment.
Then six years to come up with the original design before that, and 15 years
of field work before that.
FB: But it's really been going on since you were seven!
FB: Quote some convenient statistics on
the book, please!
DS: There are over 6,600 individual
drawings, but a few are repeated, like family mini paintings are
duplicated. The original art probably stacks 2 feet high.
FB: What do you think of Kenn Kaufman's new guide?
It's a great addition to the birding literature. It's
certainly the best introductory guide for people who
want something they can slip into the pocket and has
the basic info. I think that my book is usable for
birders at any level, but it is a bit large.
I have to say I still don't think
that he's conquered all the problems that photos
present. Even digitally enhanced, the photos have a
lot of traditional photo problems: flash, shadow,
sunlight, different poses - he had trouble finding some
photos that would work. But that debate - photos vs. artwork - will
continue indefinitely, both have strengths and weaknesses and the two
books are really complimentary. On the bottom line I think both of us
are just trying to get people excited about birding, to convey some of
our own interest, and to bring more people into birding.
FB: Is there any North American species you have
not yet seen?
DS:Yes, Whiskered Auklet.
Birders can find out a schedule of book signings at David's
web site Sibleyart.com.
The web site also includes identification articles and other information to supplement
Fred is a journalist, tech writer, and avid birder. He writes for
Ferris Reseach, Downbeat Magazine, Bossa, and other publications.
He hosts Crosscurrents, a
jazz/classical show in the Boston-area (2-4 pm, Thursdays on
WMBR-FM 88.1, MIT Radio).