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Interview with
David Sibley

By Fred Bouchard

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
October 2000
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 Fred Bouchard. 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 interview.


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 trip?

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 relief!

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 collective decisions?

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 taxonomical order?

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 sorting out.

FB: So there'll be a two-volume edition in the future?

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 on identification.

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 I've missed?

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!

DS: Exactly.

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?

DS: 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 the guide.


Fred Bouchard (fredbouchard.com or fbouchard@juno.com)
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).

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