Wherever a birder lives, Sibley is a household name. Concord resident David Allen Sibley is the author of a handful of go-to guides for the binocular set. In 2009 the author and artist turned his eyes to where many birds live and produced “The Sibley Guide to Trees.”
BOOKS: What books did you take on your recent birding trip to Montana?
SIBLEY: It was a serious birding trip so there wasn’t much time for reading. There is a book that I started reading just before I went that people were talking about there, “What the Robin Knows” by Jon Young, who’s an animal tracker. It’s about deciphering the signs and the language of birds so you can understand what they are saying, so you know when they see a weasel or a bear.
BOOKS: Do you read primarily about birds?
SIBLEY: Yes, especially while I have been revising my bird guide. I read scientific papers and other nonfiction about birds, all pretty dry stuff. A couple of years ago I really liked Jonathan Rosen’s “The Life of the Skies” about his experiences as a New Yorker taking up bird-watching and discovering all the truths in it. Over the years, I’ve picked up books like that. Audubon’s journals are really fun to read. There are all kinds of little gems in those.
BOOKS: Do you collect bird books?
SIBLEY: Yes. I love the old books. Some of them have fantastic black and white engravings, an art form that has just disappeared. One of my favorites is “Animals of the World,” a thick volume published in late 1800s. The artwork is fantastic, but a lot of the animals were imagined by the artist. He just drew something that looks like a rhino. I have a lot of books by Don Eckelberry, who illustrated books in the ’50s, such as the “Audubon Water Bird Guide.” He had a really clean, dramatic style and did incredible paintings of birds in flight. Another favorite is Lars Jonsson’s “Birds of Europe.” The artwork is just incredible. I discovered his work when I was 22. He was an inspiration to me when I started working on my book in 1994.
BOOKS: Do you read about other animals?
SIBLEY: A little. I still read some about trees. I really enjoyed “The Wild Trees” by Richard Preston, about some quirky characters roaming around in the backwoods of Northern California looking for the tallest redwoods.
BOOKS: Do you have anything on your shelves that would surprise people?
SIBLEY: “Art and Illusion” by E.H. Gombrich, which is pretty academic but really fascinating, and a couple more books about the psychology of perception. Gombrich’s book is about how what we call great art is what we’ve been trained and prepared to see. “Undressed Art” by Peter Steinhart, who used to be editor of Audubon magazine, deals with some of that too. Having never drawn before, he took up figure drawing at 60 and wrote about his experience. I also like “How We Know What Isn’t So” by Thomas Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell University. It is a really accessible introduction about the ways our brains trick us everyday.
BOOKS: That is very apropos to birding isn’t it?
SIBLEY: Once in a while you make a big mistake in the field when you are making snap judgments. Understanding better how the brain works, I don’t feel so badly about when I misidentify birds.
BOOKS: What started you reading about perception?
SIBLEY: It was during the controversy in 2004 over the sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker, which is thought to be extinct. I ended up being one of the main skeptics about the sightings. The question people kept asking me is how could so many people, as many as 30, think they saw it. The more I read about how perception works, how we see what we want to see, the more obvious the explanation became.