David Allen Sibley on the joys of watching birds

April 8

Fourteen years after “The Sibley Guide to Birds” established him as the nation’s new Audubon, David Allen Sibley has written and illustrated a second edition (Knopf, $40). Sibley spoke from Colorado, where he’d gone to look for the only North American breeding bird he has not seen in the wild.

When did you realize you loved birds?

As far back as I can remember, I liked birds and drawing, and there were many memorable sightings. Once I came home from school, and my father, an ornithologist, had trapped and banded this incredible black and grey and yellow and white bird, this little feathered jewel — a magnolia warbler, which is very rare in California. We took it outside and released it, and it flew into the woods and disappeared. That encapsulates the experience of birding for me. You never know what you’re going to find. Birds appear and disappear. It’s always sort of mysterious where they go and what’s going to turn up next.

And now the magnolia warbler is on the cover of the new edition. Not coincidentally, I assume?

I have some say about the cover, but really it’s designed and chosen by the marketing department. They went through the book, and from the 7,000 images, they picked out the magnolia warbler for the cover. Just by chance. So I said, “Okay, I like that.”


”The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition” by David Allen Sibley. (Knopf/Knopf)

What’s new or different in this edition?

I made minor corrections and touch-ups to about 50 percent of the art, and major revisions to maybe 15 percent of the original images. I added about 600 new images — a lot of those illustrate rare and exotic species. We changed the layout, and I rewrote all the text with a slightly different focus, so it’s a little more user friendly, a little more novice-friendly now.

Obviously, your goal is to help people identify birds, but is there a larger goal here in terms of conservation?

What I hope comes out of the field guide is that people get interested in birds and learn more about them and care about them, and then ultimately make decisions in their neighborhoods or support causes for bird conservation. But that’s an idealistic, indirect result of the book.

The days are gone when Audubon killed and stuffed birds so he could paint them. How do you go about painting birds?

In Audubon’s defense, he traveled around on horseback or on foot with just a box of painting supplies and a shotgun. He had no binoculars, no cameras, no books to refer to. His only reference material was the birds themselves. What I do in the field is I spend a lot of time just watching and making pencil sketches. I use binoculars and a telescope even when a bird’s pretty close because the more details you can see, the easier it is to simplify that into a sketch. All my painting is done back in the studio. I’ll pull out my field sketches, gather together photographs of that species, come up with a shape and a pencil outline, then start painting on a sheet of paper about three times as big as a page in the book.

Do you have a favorite bird?

I have a lot of favorites. I will mention one: the long-eared owl. It’s a very esoteric bird, a really elegant looking, unusual owl, and it has an incredible character and a lot of spirit. The long-eared owl is the only species that you can’t hold safely with one hand. They use both their beak and talons to fight you. And they’re so enigmatic. It’s the only species where there is no predictable, reliable place to see them in the U.S. They’re scarce in their entire habitat. If you see them, it’s always a lucky encounter.

Have you seen every bird in the book?

I’ve added 15 or 20 new species, rare visitors, that I haven’t seen. There’s only one North American breeding bird that I haven’t seen, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. I’m in Colorado now so I can try to see it. We set off tomorrow.

Burns, the editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between,” is head of creative writing at the University of Southampton in England.

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