David Allen Sibley is a naturalist whose Sibley's Guide to Birds has become the standard for birders across North America. In interviewing him for The Washington Post, I was struck by how he is both a scientist and an artist. His thoughts and ideas about drawing so echoed that of my partner and artist Paul Edwards. Yet Sibley dropped out of college after a year of studying biology, and spent the next 12 years "birding and sketching full-time."
My Washington Post interview runs today. Here are a few bits I wasn't able to fit into that article.
Why did you decide to focus on this – bird identification -- as opposed to another kind of animal science?
My main interest has always been birds, and drawing for me is how I study birds. It’s how I learn about them. It’s a method, a technique, of learning. Doing a drawing forces me to look at every part of the bird, study all the different colors and patterns and shapes. Birding by itself, drawing is just so exciting and I think it’s sort of optimistic kind of pursuit. Birdwatchers are always thinking about what’s next, what’s coming tomorrow, what’s going to happen next week. And there’s always something different. And it’s much stronger in bird study than any other kind of nature study, because the birds are so mobile . they appear and disappear locally, they move with the seasons, their ranges can change dramatically in 10 or 15 years.
Lets say people are just beginning to have an interest in birds – where should they start?
Get a Field Guide. One of the best things to do is spend time at home flipping through the pages of the books. In my book birds are grouped in families and genera. Learning the groups can really help. What makes a vireo a vireo? The hardest part is the first 25 to 50 species. Someone sees their first sparrow and you go the book and find out there are 25 to 30 species of sparrow. So go out with someone. There’s usually an Audubon center or wildlife center within 20 miles of every town in the country, and people who run bird watches are happy to have novices. They can help you with those first identifications.
For an avid birder, what’s your top tip?
A similar tip – pay attention to the relationships between the birds. Really think about that. Bird watchers and field guides tend to focus on the differences between birds. I like to focus on the similarities.
You say that you mix the color for each breed once, then paint the entire page for a species. Have you ever gone out to the woods with a new page to see if you’ve got the right yellow?
I’ve gone to a museum. Mainly I rely on sketches and my own sense of what looks right. Color is incredibly subjective, so I try to get the relative color right.