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The yellow-headed blackbird, this one from the Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Seeing a flock of yellow-headed blackbirds when he was seven years old helped author David Sibley embark on the path he would take in life. (Photo courtesy of David Sibley )
Ring-billed gulls raiding a picnic at the beach. “Gulls may be the most versatile birds,” Sibley writes in his new book. “In a bird triathalon—swim, run, fly—gulls would be among the favorites to win.” (Photo courtesy of David Sibley )
An American robin pulling a worm from the ground. “Early colonists in North America called this bird ‘robin’ because it has a reddish breast like the European robin they knew from home,” Sibley writes. “The two species are not closely related.” (Photo courtesy of David Sibley )
An American crow playing with trinket. “Crows are among the most intelligent birds, and even understand the concept of fair trading,” Sibley writes. (Photo courtesy of David Sibley )
Male rufous hummingbirds battling over a patch of flowers. “Male hummingbirds will fiercely defend a patch of flowers, or feeders, against all other hummers.” (Photo courtesy of David Sibley )
Feathers, David Sibley found when writing his new book, are so much more fascinating than even he imagined. (Photo courtesy of David Sibley )
David Sibley (Photo courtesy of David Sibley )
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David Sibley was about seven years old and on a picnic outing with his family near their home, when he heard a big flock of birds. He looked up.
“There were these big black birds with bright yellow heads lined up on a wire in the bright sun,” he says.
The alternately musical and screechy call, and the sight of the colorful, stout yellow-headed blackbirds, along with his older brother’s decision to start a bird life list that day, prompted Sibley to start his first bird life list, too. That interest grew into a career as a world-renowned author and illustrator of more than a dozen books, along with apps, calendars, field-ready folding guides, artwork, cards, posters, puzzles, and more, all of them focused on birds and nature.
All these years later, he says, “I still remember those yellow-headed birds.”
Sibley, who later moved with his family from the west coast to Guilford, where he grew up and went to high school, just published his latest book, What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing–What Birds Are Doing, and Why. It was released in April, just as the world was changing.
His book tour was canceled and the events migrated online, as did much of the rest of our lives. When we spoke by phone earlier this month, we both wondered whether this might be a book just perfect for these times.
What It’s Like to Be a Bird is a celebration of vast array of diverse birds, in all of their wonderful wildness, quirkiness, and specific predictable behaviors, suffused with the happiness that bird watching brings, and firmly grounded in science.
It is equal parts joy and order, both of which are entirely welcome these days.
‘It Touches Something Deep’
“I think the fundamental appeal of birding is just a way to connect with nature and to understand what’s going around us, especially now in these weird and uncertain times,” he says. “It’s very reassuring to look outside and feel connected to something that is normal, that is progressing the way it has for thousands of years,” says Sibley from his home in Massachusetts. “The birds are migrating. Building nests. Raising young.”
Research backs up our notion that there are many benefits to going for a walk in the woods or just taking the time to look outside your window at the birds in your backyard.
“People are happier and more relaxed after a short walk in the woods. Even just looking out the window and at your bird feeder can do that...It’s just pleasant to sit at a window and watch a bird feeder. It touches something deep within us. In a fundamental sense we want to be connected with the natural world around us, and bird watching is a great way to do that.”
His latest book, Sibley says, was originally intended to be a children’s book. It evolved into the kind of book that the seven-year-old in all of us would enjoy.
“A science-curious 10-year-old could get something out of it. But I can also see an adult sitting with a six-year-old reading it. Something for parents and grandparents to sit down with young kids and look at the pictures, and talk about what the birds are doing, and why,” he says.
If You Ate Like a Bird...
The back of the book provides a peek into some of the revelations the reader will find within.
“If you ‘ate like a bird,’ you might eat more than 25 large pizzas a day.”
“Some birds spend the entire winter in the air, and even sleep while flying.”
“The pitches in some birdsongs are related mathematically, like a musical scale.”
Sibley, who has studied birds for decades, says once he got started on the book, he was surprised by how much he didn’t know.
It is in some ways different than the books he’s written in the past, but it did have one thing in common with his past books.
“Sort of all my books start out with one idea and then, as I’m creating a book, it ends up being the book that I want for myself,” he says. “In this case, it was the book that I imagine I would have wanted as myself 30 years ago.”
Many of his past books have been field guides to birds and are considered classics of their genre.
“But I didn’t want this to be just a field guide. And I didn’t want it to be a simplified field guide,” he says. “As I got into the research on birds, and their special abilities and adaptations, I started trying to answer all of the common questions. Do all birds migrate? What do birds do at night? They are really simple questions, but things that birders always want to know.”
Digging, Digging Deeper
As soon as he started digging into the research, he realized he had to dig deeper.
“I started learning so much and discovering so many amazing facts that I didn’t know after 50 years of watching birds. As I learned, I realized how interesting all that stuff was,” he says. “I made that the focus of the book. I turned it into a collection of little short explanations of what birds do.”
He says many readers have told him they enjoy the introduction. He says that’s likely because, in addition to introducing the material, it helps bind it together.
“The topics are scattered randomly through the book. The birds are introduced in a sort of taxonomic sequence that starts with geese and ends with blackbirds and finches,” he says, adding that the summaries in the introduction allow people to quickly track down topics of interest, such as birds’ vision, for example.
‘So Much More Amazing’
Sibley says one of his favorite parts of the book is the information on feathers. He had always assumed bird feathers were waterproof because of preen oil. Birds spend about 10 percent of their day preening themselves with oil they produce in a special gland.
“I assumed that was why water beads up and rolls off,” he says.
But it’s actually the structure of the feathers and the spacing of the barbs that are the key.
“Feathers are water resistant because of the precise spacing of the barbs; water can neither flow through nor stick to the surface,” he writes. “Water birds have barbs closer together, making it harder for water to penetrate, and also more and stiffer feathers than land birds. Feathers wrap around the underside of a swimming bird to create a waterproof shell.”
And how many feathers does a bird have?
Small songbirds: about two thousand, fewer in summer and more in winter. Larger birds like crows usually have larger feathers, though not necessarily more feathers. And water birds have more feathers than land birds.
For those who want to take a deeper, more scientific guide, there is in the back of the book a Sources section, 11 pages in fine print, listing both specific sources rfor his work, and general sources.
Our conversation returns to the feathers and Sibley admits he could talk about it in even more depth.
“All of this has been known for decades. It’s all in the scientific literature, but, as I was writing this book, it felt like, even with all I knew, I was making discoveries,” he says. “It is so much more amazing than what I thought was happening.”
The 2020 guide to the Madison Chamber of Commerce has arrived!