Not Just For The Birds
A new Sibley guide explains the lives of the beaked and feathered
There are few brand names when it comes to birding. Until October of last year, in fact, there were only John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson — the 19th-century alpha and 20th-century omega of avian identification and awareness.
Now there’s David Allen Sibley, a mild-mannered bird painter so devoted that he once spent several years living out of a van, simply going where the birds went. But with the publication last fall of The Sibley Guide to Birds, Sibley became…Sibley. Last name only. A brand. And with the new The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior ($45, Knopf), he has become a brand extension, serving as coeditor and illustrator, but largely leaving the writing to a crack team of ornithologists and scientists.
This is something even Peterson didn’t dare attempt so early in the game. But Peterson didn’t have 185,000 copies in print right off the bat, or a potential audience of 50-70 million active birders. Sibley does. He also knows we’re in danger of having fewer birds, so the more people who care about them, the better.
The first book still isn’t the ideal beginner’s bird guide: It’s too big to fit in a pocket, and the 6,600-plus paintings, gorgeous as they are, verge on overkill for neophytes. Bird Life & Behavior is another matter. Identification books answer what; this one answers why. Why does that mockingbird sound like it’s imitating a car alarm outside your bedroom window? Why is that dipper walking casually along the bottom of the stream? Why are those crows ganging up on that hawk? The opening chapters serve as a readable crash course in basic ornithology; the individual bird-family sections settle arguments, provide stats, and give the current conservation status. This is the book to turn the casual bird-watcher into a birder; it’s suffused with the quiet, concerned wonder that is David Sibley’s true brand identity.