Acclaimed bird artist and author David Sibley is publishing a new book on April 14 that is unlike any other bird book I can recall. What It’s Like to be a Bird, a large-format volume, is geared as much to non-birders as it is to the out-and-out obsessed, covering more than 200 species and including more than 330 new illustrations by the author. Read our review here.
The book isn’t a field guide, like Sibley is best known for, nor does it attempt to cover all of the birds of the U.S. and Canada. Instead, it examines birds’ lives and shares amazing insights about them gleaned from scientific research.
I recently asked Sibley to describe how the book came to be, what he learned while writing it, and more. Here’s our conversation:
What was the spark for creating this book? And for how long were you working on it?
This started as an idea for a children’s book about familiar birds, almost 20 years ago. I wanted it to be visually exciting, and I came up with the idea of a large format with full-page portraits of the birds roughly life size, a more casual sketchbook style for some illustrations, and wanted to include short essays about some of the amazing abilities and adaptations of birds. As I did the research, I kept running across more and more fascinating information — things I had never known — and eventually the essays became the whole book.
My first efforts were around 2002, and I got more serious about it for a while around 2009, but most of the work was done between 2016 and now.
This book answers lots of questions about birds, and I’m wondering if any of the facts that you present were inspired by questions you’ve been asked (by birders, people at book signings or talks, etc.)?
Definitely. I was consciously trying to answer the most common questions that I heard from my friends, neighbors, and from the general public, over the years, both birders and non-birders. As I worked through lists of topics during the research, I always tried to focus on answering those questions and covering a wide range of questions. It made this a really fascinating project trying to tackle questions like “Why do birds migrate?” That’s such a broad, existential question and I had always answered it sort of dismissively as “That’s just what they do.” But when I started reading, I learned that it has a good explanation.
Inevitably when I started digging into one vague question, I would find a myriad of related topics and subtopics that were all equally interesting. There was so much interesting material, the challenge was to limit the scope of the work, to keep my focus on a few (300 or so) specific questions.
Your illustrations really stand out thanks to the book’s larger-than-usual format. What prompted you to create the book at this size?
This is a holdover from the early concept as a children’s book, but I think it works for any age. Frankly I was tired of the constraints of field guide work — trying to squeeze so much onto a page while keeping a size that’s easy to carry. This book is meant to be browsed in a leisurely way and doesn’t have the “small-as-possible” size limits of a field guide. I think the large size makes it more enjoyable by making everything easier to read and to process.
In researching and writing the book, did you learn things about certain birds that you didn’t know before?
So much new stuff! Killdeer and other ground-nesting birds are odorless during the nesting season. Feathers are waterproof because of their structure (not because of the preen oil). Birds balance while they sleep (their toes do not “automatically” tighten on their perch). Pigeons walking on treadmills do not bob their heads. And much more! I had daily revelations while I was researching. Admittedly, I’ve spent my life watching and drawing birds, not in scientific ornithology, but so much of this information is scattered in technical papers and only known to specialists. I was surprised at the wide gulf between the current science and the birder’s understanding of birds.
This book is unlike any other bird book I know of. What about it is most satisfying for you?
Well, creating the artwork was very rewarding, especially having an opportunity to play around with more dramatic action scenes without the constraints of field guide illustration. But I think the most satisfying is simply learning new things and connecting them. I always learn a lot about a subject when I work on a book, which makes me confident that I’m producing a book that other people will also learn from. My favorite part is when I can pull together bits of information from many different sources and present them in a unified way, connecting them across categories and making complex ideas understandable.
That’s what this book is all about, and along with those things, I also tried hard to relate the information about the lives of the birds to our lives as humans. Ultimately the best reward is knowing that other people enjoy the book and that it enriches their understanding of birds and our shared earth.