For the Birds: Inside the mind of David Allen Sibley

By Hope Katz Gibbs, founder, Inkandescent PR + Publishing Co., for the Costco Connection — Since he was 7, illustrator David Allen Sibley has been wild about birds. He spent years trekking into the wilderness to study birds with his dad, well-known Yale University ornithologist Fred Sibley. Then, in 1980, after a year of studying biology at Cornell University, he realized he wasn’t going to learn all he wanted about bird biology inside a college lab.

So he traded in his textbooks for a dark blue Ford Chateau van and began traveling from woods to the marsh to swamp to the beach throughout the United States, studying and sketching his feathered friends in their native habitats. It was a trip that would last eight years.

All those years of firsthand observation paid off a year ago for the 39-year-old artist when Alfred A. Knopf published The Sibley Guide to Birds. Packed with more than 6,600 illustrations by Sibley, the 545-page softcover volume became the fastest-selling bird book in publishing history, according to Kathryn Zuckerman, Knopf’s associate director of publicity. Already, she says, the book has sold more than 450,000 copies.

It may have some competition next month, though, when Knopf releases The Sibley Guide to Bird Lift & Behavior. A sequel to the 2000 guide, the new 608-page hardcover tome describes what 80 bird families found in North America do, why they do it and how they fit into their environments.

“Unlike the first book, which functioned mostly as an identification guide to be used in the field, this book answers a variety of important questions such as how many eggs a robin lays [usually two to four],’” Sibley tells The Connection. He created nearly 500 new illustrations for the second volume in his home in Concord, Massachusetts.

The new book also answers How the Common Loon dives for prey (left) is just more complex questions, he says, such as how woodpeckers climb trees, what adaptations have allowed a loon to dive underwater and catch fish, and how hummingbirds and flowers have evolved together.

Like the first book, the new volume also features maps, essays, family accounts, and explanatory text by 48 ornithologists and experts, birders-including Sibley. Most birdwatchers will want to own both books. Sibley says one for the backpack (the first volume is well suited for taking along on bird-watching expeditions) and one for the desktop (the second, more expansive hardcover volume is best kept indoors).

Interestingly, soon after the first Sibley Guide was released, critics complained that the volume, which weighed in at 2 pounds, was too hefty to tote along on a several-mile hike easily. Sibley says the suggestion frustrated him and infuriated his dad.

“The New York Times reviewed the book, and as soon as the paper came out, my dad and I sat in my kitchen eagerly reading what it said,” Sibley recalls. “All the comments were glowing, but there was this one line where the reviewer complained about the book’s size. My dad looked up and vehemently said, ‘This book is not too heavy!”

“It never dawned on us that size would be an issue,” the soft-spoken Sibley says.

But it seems that avid bird watchers have adapted. One Rhode Island firm, Fieldfare (like the bird), designed a nylon-zippered book cover with a shoulder strap just the right size to hold the Sibley Guide.

Sibley simply tucks his copy of the guide into his backpack when he goes out bird-watching-an activity he says he, unfortunately, hadn’t engaged in much lately. Instead, he and his wife, Joan Walsh, a biologist who worked at the New Jersey Audubon Society for years, spend most of their free time with their two young sons, ages 4 and 7.

“It isn’t so easy to go bird-watching with little kids,’ Sibley admits. “ But now that the boys are getting older, I think we’ll start doing it more often. After all, I was 7 when I first went bird-watching with my dad.”