David Allen Sibley became a household name in the birding world when his first guidebook sold more than a half million copies.
Now, 14 years later, he’s come out with a second edition of his famed “Sibley Guide to the Birds.” The new edition has more specific range maps, an additional 100 species considered rare in North America and a checklist for tracking your life sightings. He also retouched or enhanced about half of the more than 700 original paintings included in the second edition.
Sibley, who will give a talk at the Bell Museum on April 2, chatted with us from his home in Concord, Mass., about the digital incursion on the natural world, why he thinks of his guidebooks as address books and birding with John James Audubon.
Q: Was there always going to be a second edition?
A: Yes, in my mind, always. I was interested in the second edition even as I was working on the first. It’s safe to say that I’ve been thinking about the third. There are always things to add, things to fix.
Q: How do you view your guidebooks?
A: My books are address books, so to speak. Your friends are in there. You recognize them. You continue the conversation. The ultimate goal is to introduce people to birds so they get out and make connections.
Q: And birding?
A: I think of birding as getting to know a community of friends. People talk that way about birds: who’s back in town, who left town. Birders gossip about birds. Going into the field is connecting with nature, but it’s also to keep tab on the birds you see.
Q: How does the new edition reflect the changes you see in birding?
A: I think there have been some significant changes. It mostly has to do with digital photography. Put the photos on a computer screen and you can zoom in on details hard to see at a distance. Small details are now field marks. There’s been a shift in the past 75 years from broad color patterns and gestalt to more detail. We have better optics, plus the cameras. Birders rely less on overall impression than they did 30 years ago.
Q: What changes do you see coming in the next 10 years?
A: I suspect more than anything things will be more digital. There will be an app that allows you to identify bird songs on the spot. There will be an app that lets you speak the description and narrow your ID choices down to a few species. People will use their smartphones for identifying birds.
Q: Is going digital a good thing or a bad thing?
A: Some people see that as a bad thing, but I don’t think it takes away from the fundamental purpose of birding. That is to get outside and connect with birds. How you put a name on a bird doesn’t change the fundamental purpose of being there.
Q: What was your goal with these guidebooks?
A: I decided I wanted to simplify the illustrations, to provide clear profile views of birds in similar poses, to offer comparisons. I wanted to make a better field guide, to give the impression of the detail you get when you look through binoculars.
Q: In this edition, you changed the order in which some of the birds appear. For instance, falcons are no longer grouped with hawks. Instead, they are next to parrots. Why parrots?
A: Based on relatively recent DNA studies, falcons and parrots are each other’s nearest relatives. They’re both on an early branch of songbird development; they are at the base of the songbird tree.
Q: How do you want people to use your books?
A: The best way to use a guide is to spend time browsing through it. Bird names are almost like another language. Take time to look at other birds in the family when you’re checking an identification. In a very short time, you get familiar with not only the birds but also with the book. The time you spend browsing the books is an important part of learning about birds.
Q: What bird guidebook did you use when you were beginning?
A: Mostly the “Golden Guide to Birds of North America” by Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Bruun, Herbert S. Zim and Arthur Singer.
Q: Name the books you consider essential to a birding library.
A: Well, a field guide, of course. Second, an annotated checklist of the birds of your area, a state bird guide, for instance. Then, a book on bird behavior. I wrote one, “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.” Kenn Kaufman’s “Lives of North American Birds” is another good one. Arthur Cleveland Bent’s “Life Histories” is a classic series. I really love these old books. Bent’s books have fantastic detail besides being fun to read. They’re full of anecdotes and stories. “The Dictionary of American Bird Names” by Ernest Choate is another interesting book. And Audubon’s journals.
Q: If you could go birding with any person — dead or alive — who would it be?
A: Audubon. His paintings have had such an impact on the world. And by all accounts he was a real personality.
I’d want two days with him. One day in 1820, to see what it was like then, and one with him now, to hear what he thinks of us. He thought the Ohio River was ruined when there was a cabin every half-mile.