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Song Sleuth at OWAA in Duluth, Minnesota.

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Renown Ornithologist/Author David Sibley Talks Bird Behavior & Technology At OWAA Conference in Minnesota

Shots Of The Song Sleuth App & David Sibley standing along the harbor in Duluth, Minnesota at OWAA. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The way birds communicate and the way birds act has been a fascination of David Sibley for many years. Considered one of the foremost and renowned American ornithologists & author/illustrator of “Sibley’s Guide To Birds” which is considered almost a textbook of the trade, Sibley sat down with The Buzz in Duluth, Minnesota at the Outdoor Writers Association Of America Conference to discuss bird behavior, his formative years and his new app with Wildlife Acoustics: Song Sleuth.

The Buzz: Can you talk about how your love for birding flourished, about that interest as a youth and how that grew into a career from your point of view?

David Sibley: I guess I feel I had an interest in birds and drawing...and I was lucky to have an ornithologist father who could provide a lot of opportunities, but he didn't take us out birding. He just said, "Hey, we're going for a hike," and then either he or his friends would be turning over logs and finding snakes or someone would be identifying birds and someone would say, "Here. I just picked this leaf. Try it." It was just a nature experience. I think I just got it through kind of spending a lot of time outdoors and learning things. I got comfortable in that, and that whole natural world started to make sense. I understood the change of seasons, the birds eating the spiders, the spiders eating the insects, the insects eating the plants. It just made sense. And as an eight-year-old, it was a part of the big world that I could understand and figure out just by watching and being out there.

The Buzz: You have lived in California & Connecticut and went to Yale. The geography probably influenced you.

DS: That's one thing about birding or any kind of nature study. It makes travel that much more exciting. So their fundamental similarities, the cycle of life, works the same no matter where you are. But moving across the country, you're going to see differences -- the structure of the forest is different, the climate is different, the birds, the insects, everything is different and that's exciting. And as a 10-year-old when we moved from California to Connecticut, I was really excited about seeing a new place and learning about it. I can remember being 12 years old and thinking, "You know, my friends talk about going to visit their grandparents on vacation, but they're not birders. What do they do?” (laughing)

The Buzz: That what's completely evolved now. Grandparents take their grandkids out in motorhomes and so they're outdoors. There are so many more options. You were saying with the internet, you only had four or five photos before decades ago and now you have hundreds [or thousands] of photos to look at. Can you talk about how technology both helps and hinders?

DS: I think technology has really changed the way I go about birding. And the cell phone has had a huge impact, that communication is so easy, getting information about where to find birds, where to go. I spent years living in a camper van traveling around the country, so I was kind of living the RV lifestyle [then] but with no money (laughing). I would often find myself in places with retired couples in a motorhome living in the campsite next to me. We would be talking about birds and the birds were coming to their feeders. I really loved that lifestyle. It must be so much easier now to be able to lookup campsites and make reservations and plan your trip.

Sibley in Cape May, NJ in 1981 scouting birds. [Courtesy: David Sibley]
Sibley's Aplomado Falcon Sketch from 2015. [Courtesy: David Sibley]
Sibley in Pembroke, Maine in 1987 sketching birds. [Courtesy: David Sibley]

The Buzz: Could you talk about the freedom of that creatively and academically working out of your camper van?

DS: It really allowed me to live with the birds where if I had been based in some home place and going out on short trips around the country to see these birds, I would've been just a visitor in their range. Traveling in the van allowed me to drive up into the mountains in Arizona or live on the coast of Texas for a few weeks or couple of months and really get to know the birds, to see the same birds every day for a month or two. That was really, for me, critical to what I was doing…to really be able to get familiar with the birds, to do the sketches, to do the studies, and to have the free time because I realized along the way that the secret of success in birding is just time (laughing). If you go somewhere and the bird is there, the only question beyond whether you're going to see it is how much time you're able to spend. If you can spend two weeks, you're going to see it. And once you've seen it and start to figure out its routine, so you can see it more often and more easily. It is just a question of time.

The Buzz: Now, from the beginning when you were first doing sketches, obviously, to now, there's so much personality that comes through in the sketches, whether it's quick or refined. Can you talk about capturing that?

DS: People have often asked me if I've been able to recognize individual birds or get to know individual birds. Sometimes there will be a particular individual that will do certain things or be particularly bold or curious. But in general what I do is try to learn the average sort of stereotype of a species. So I wasn't looking for individual differences I was looking for the personality of a species.

The Buzz: Sort of like the human community. There is probably similarities I would think. Does that meet first in the sketching? Is that kind of like the harder edge of how a plume looks? What do you tend to look for?

DS: I look for the shapes…the shape of the wings, and the proportions. But what I'm trying to capture in the sketches is the overall impression [for example] that birds like Chickadees are not particularly strong or direct flyers as opposed to a Peregrine Falcon or most of the Sandpipers who are really strong flyers. So it is about trying to capture that in the sketch through little suggestions of movement like blurring parts of the sketch. What I imagine is that the drawings are most useful after you've seen the bird. You understand the sketch better. The sketch starts to mean more after you have some experience with the bird.

The Buzz: I also like that you talk about perception of the senses. One bird can put its beak in the water and almost echo. That's a sense of touch. Obviously sight, and the way the hummingbird sees. But also sound, because we've interpreted certain parts of bird song but we probably don't know exactly what they're saying. That's sort of part of what you're doing with Wildlife Acoustics with the inclusion of bird song you have recorded.

DS: That's one of the things that makes bird watching so appealing I think, is that birds communicate with each other the same way we communicate with each other. It's mostly by sight and sound and a little bit by smell. So we can understand or interpret almost everything that the birds are doing. Their lives are open to us [laughing) in ways that other species, or other groups of organisms aren't. In that way, the birds' senses match up to our own pretty well. They see a wider range of color wavelengths than we do, they see ultraviolet. They hear a little bit better than we do. And they hear more quickly, so they're getting a lot more information out of each of their vocalizations.


Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

Song Sleuth

Make Sure To Check Out:

Song Sleuth, which is a fun  way to learn birding by ear. Everywhere you go, Song Sleuth can listen to the birds singing and instantly show the most likely bird species that it heard. The app provides all the tools you need to determine which is the correct bird using the built-in David Sibley Bird Reference.

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