Special features

Interview with David Allen Sibley, author of The Sibley Guide to Birds

In a 2001 interview, Contributing Editor David Sibley, author of our column "ID Toolkit," tells how his field guide came to be and that its success surprised him
By Matt Mendenhall | Published: 11/29/2007

david_sibley_interviewIf anyone expected David Sibley’s bird guide to sell a half-million copies in nine months, they sure didn’t tell Sibley. When we spoke in June 2001, the author seemed genuinely surprised that his Sibley Guide to Birds was such a hit. This, after countless book signings, interviews with national media and dozens of positive book reviews.

Now, he’s even beginning to feel the effects of celebrity. The day before our interview, Sibley led a People Magazine reporter on a morning bird hike. While he felt somewhat odd having a reporter take notes while he birded, Sibley was even more surprised when birders along the trail recognized him. “Just two months ago I wasn’t being recognized,” he says. “They’ll usually apologize for interrupting and ask for an autograph.”

Not that he’s complaining, he says. It just takes some getting used to.

Given the unbelievable sales for The Sibley Guide, he’d better keep getting used to it. Sibley expected that 40,000 to 50,000 top-flight birders would buy his book to get more detail than the National Geographic or Peterson guides offer. That’s why he’s still a bit surprised by novice birders’ attraction to the book.

sibley_pullquote01The pull, he figures, is the guide’s design. With no more than two species per page, the clean layout and the various depictions of each North American species, The Sibley Guide is a fresh approach to field guide design. In fact, at book signings, he often hears compliments about the design.

“It’s very gratifying because the design was the thing I worked hardest on,” he says. “I spent years just thinking about the design.”

In fact, the field guide is the culmination of Sibley’s lifetime as a birder. The son of the well-known ornithologist Fred Sibley, David began drawing birds at age 7 and first painted birds at about 18.

“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,” says the 39-year-old Sibley. He didn’t decide on the guide’s layout until 1994, which is when he started painting the final draft. When he wasn’t painting birds, he worked in various bird-related jobs: as a hawk counter at Cape May, New Jersey, as a sound technician at Cornell’s Library of Natural Sounds and as a tour guide for WINGS Inc.

sibley_pullquote02

Volume 2 on the way

This October, birders can get another taste of Sibley’s avian expertise when his next book hits store shelves. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior (Knopf, $45) is a fascinating examination of North American birds that complements his field guide.

Focusing on bird families rather than individual species, the book features almost 800 of Sibley’s paintings.

“It covers things the first book didn’t,” Sibley says. “It summarizes information for each family, so if you want to know the nesting habits of wrens or the conservation status of grassland sparrows, this book will explain it.”

Why not give such details about each species?

“We wanted to present the broad patterns rather than giving a mountain of data,” he says. “That way people can interpret what they see.”

He compares the new guide to BirdLife International’s Handbook of the Birds of the World, albeit on a much smaller scale. It’s an apt comparison. An early edition of the new Sibley Guide provided to Birder’s World captivated us with its easy-to-read family descriptions. Sibley’s paintings of birds in natural settings — Golden Eagles on their nest, for example — were more than pretty pictures. Their rich detail add to the book’s educational impact.

Some critics of his field guide point out its lack of conservation notes, but Sibley feels the guide was designed to “get people excited about birds.” The new book, which is full of conservation information, should satisfy such critics.

Sibley’s fans will be excited to know he’s got more on his plate. In about a year, he’ll publish a book on bird identification (Sibley’s Birding Basics). And after that, he’s planning to produce Eastern and Western field guides. “They won’t replace the first guide, but will complement it,” he says.

In the meantime, if you catch a glimpse of him in the field, be polite and don’t gawk. He’s simply enjoying the birds, just like you.

David Allen Sibley is the author of The Sibley Guide to Birds (Knopf, 2000), Sibley’s Birding Basics (Knopf, 2002), and guides to birds of eastern and western North America (Knopf, 2003). His column, “ID Toolkit,” appears in each issue of BirdWatching.