fb-pixel Skip to main content
Globe Magazine

Why David Allen Sibley, king of the birders, became the pandemic’s unlikeliest celebrity

When droves of quarantined Americans took up bird-watching, they turned to guide books by a soft-spoken Western Mass. ornithologist, one of the best there’s ever been.

David Allen Sibley birding in Deerfield.
David Allen Sibley birding in Deerfield.joanna chattman for the boston globe

The first thing I notice about David Allen Sibley, as we are standing in his driveway in Deerfield, is that he is quiet and shy. This only adds to the air of mystery I’d surrounded him in, and God knows I had spent the past couple years blanketing the man in plenty. That’s because Sibley — or, more accurately, the idea of “Sibley,” which has meant different things to different people these past two decades — had arrived in my life at the exact moment when I was beginning an internal debate.

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue HeronDavid Allen Sibley / Knopf

These simultaneous events — the existential crisis, and the first time I heard the word “Sibley” — occurred as I was standing in a parking lot near a trailhead in Bolton, just wrapping up an evening where I had been shadowing a group of expert birders who were competing in the Mass Audubon Bird-a-thon, an annual contest where teams of birders attempt to see or hear the most species in 24 hours.

As I was changing out of my muddy boots, I listened to two birders compare notes about what they’d seen, when I heard them each say the word “Sibley” several times. I assumed this was another birding term that was new to me — these funny terms like “pishing” and “suet” — so I picked up my reporter’s notebook and asked what “Sibley” meant.

Advertisement



“You know who John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson are, right?” one of the birders asked me, and I replied I had a general idea that they were naturalists who had illustrated famous books of birds. “David Sibley is basically the successor to them. His guidebook is like the bible of birding.”

This was said with a measured reverence, like I should have known all about it already and she didn’t want to go on too long with the platitudes in front of other birders who did not need “Sibley” explained to them. And then she added as an addendum, almost in passing: “And he’s local. He lives in Massachusetts.”

Advertisement



If I’m honest, I was surprised by the fact that Sibley was alive. Bible makers feel like things of the past, even if the bibles they’ve made are guides to birds. It seemed weird that this person would just be living on some street nearby.

All evening, I’d been blown away by the knowledge of the birders I’d been trailing. They could identify a rare bird by song from a hundred feet away. But what most interested me was how much difficulty I was having answering a personal question that had been nagging at me right from the moment I’d heard them call out the name of an obscure bird: Am I jealous of them? Did I want to know what they know? Or did all that knowledge and collecting suck the magic right out of nature?

And, for some reason, I decided that to answer that question I had to first meet the biggest collector of all.


Sibley and his dogs near his home in Deerfield.
“People often ask how my father got me interested in birds, and my memory is not that we went birding," says David Allen Sibley. "We went outdoors. We went for walks.” joanna chattman for the boston globe

Sibley has his binoculars around his neck when he and his two dogs come out to greet me, and it makes me glad I’d slid mine on before I got out of my car. He is definitely shy and quiet, and I’m definitely nervous, but thankfully for both of us there is an easy distraction a few dozen feet away, which is birds, lots of them, at a cluster of four feeders.

Advertisement



“Even though the weather isn’t spring-like, these birds are definitely feeling it,” Sibley says, as he raises his binoculars and goes quiet for a few moments. “There are some new arrivals today. Common redpolls. Song sparrow. Fox sparrow, which are on their way to southern Canada.”

It’s the second week of March, and Sibley’s property — a former dairy farm that he rents from a friend with his wife, the ornithologist Joan Walsh — is humming to life on an otherwise gray day.

We watch the birds for a bit and make some small talk, but it’s not difficult to figure out that Sibley is the sort of person who does not like the feeling of being interviewed. When I acknowledge this, he seems pleased that we can at least get that out of the way.

“Before the big field guide came out, in 2000, I was not in front of the public at all,” he says. “Then all of a sudden I was doing the lectures, the book signings, the NPR interviews. And it was nerve-racking those first couple years, the fear that something would go wrong. The thing that makes you successful is sitting in a quiet room with introspection, then you’re in front of crowds expected to say something.”

The Sibley Guide to Birds was declared seminal even before it hit store shelves. “Once in a great while, a natural history book changes the way people look at the world,” The New York Times gushed. An ornithologist from the Massachusetts Audubon Society called it “a quantum leap” over previous guide books. It was sold out everywhere after two weeks.

Advertisement



Overnight, Sibley was the most famous person in the bird world, and the bird world is a very specific place. “It’s very technical. Very nitpicky,” he says. “People notice little tiny mistakes, and they enjoy pointing them out. They’ll send you a letter that says, ‘I love you, but on page 124. . . . ‘”

House Finch
House FinchDavid Allen Sibley / Knopf

After two decades, Sibley’s fame in the birding world has become somewhat normal. What’s new, however, is a bit of fame outside of it, triggered by the pandemic. When lockdowns trapped people at home, backyard birding suddenly took off, perhaps even more so than sourdough bread-baking. And, along with a run on bird feeders and birdseed, there was a sudden increase in sales of Sibley’s books. His publisher, Knopf, had to scramble many titles back into production to keep up with the demand — all told there are now 2.5 million of his books in print. Sibley himself starred in a pre-pandemic segment of CBS Sunday Morning, which was rebroadcast in August 2020.

But the center of attention remains an uncomfortable spot for Sibley, because he has never been much interested in chasing success. No, what he is trying to do is much more interesting than that. And much more complicated.

Advertisement



“I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from fitting things into a framework,” he tells me. “All information about birds forms patterns. That’s really what I’m searching for. How everything fits together. The search for order.”


David Allen Sibley
David Allen SibleyNATE HAWKS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

When Sibley was 13, and had already demonstrated an ability to produce almost scientific drawings of birds by studying them with his binoculars, he declared to his parents that he would devote his life to writing the first bird guide that “collected everything that was known about birds.”

His father, Fred Sibley, was a well-known ornithologist, then at Yale University, and birds were always a part of the family’s life. The younger Sibley never once questioned whether his dream to research, write, and illustrate a new field guide was a valid career choice. “When I was younger I spent a lot of time with the New Haven Bird Club, and people were always pointing things out and saying, ‘Don’t look in the field guide, that detail isn’t there,’” he says. “There were all these details being passed around the birding community that weren’t in any of the guides, so there was no question that it was worthwhile because there was so much information that was new and uncollected.”

He was so certain that in 1980 he dropped out of Cornell University after less than a year to focus on his plan. “Sitting in a lecture hall was not getting me any closer to writing a field guide,” he says. His parents weren’t thrilled, but he got a job at the prestigious Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and another counting hawks at Cape May, New Jersey — perhaps the premier birding spot in America — and started drawing and cataloging. For a decade after that, he worked for a company called Wings that led high-end birding tours around the world, all the while building his collection of drawings and biographies for his guide book. “While I was working on it, I’d always run into people that would say: ‘A new field guide? Is there really a market for that?’” Birding already had its bible, and it was Peterson’s field guide.

It took Sibley until his early 30s to finally have enough material to land a book deal. That was 1993. He figured it would take him three years to complete the project. It took twice that, but what he finally produced was so extraordinary, and generated so much pre-publication buzz, that the head of publicity at his publisher, Knopf, stopped him in the hall one day and asked him what his middle name was, liked the sound of it, and insisted that he must go by David Allen Sibley if he was, as predicted, going to be the successor to John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson.

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned OwlDavid Allen Sibley/Knopf

When the guide was released, readers were stunned by the heft of it — 2.65 pounds, about the weight of an adult Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) — and by the level of detail. There were more than 6,000 meticulous paintings, far more and with far more nuance than in any of his predecessors’ books. Sibley’s guide doesn’t just show a house sparrow (Passer domesticus) and leave it at that; he shows a female house sparrow, a male house sparrow, and a non-breeding male house sparrow, each with subtle gradations of color and form. Then there are images of birds in flight — the view many birders will first have of them, after all — as well as maps, detailed descriptions of bird songs, and measurements such as weight and wingspan.

The Sibley Guide to Birds was so much more jam-packed than any previous field guide that the chief complaint about the book was that it held too much information. When I tell Sibley that a friend of mine complains about how much his guide weighs, he says that’s why it’s available as a smartphone app.


Sibley and I set off walking as we work our way through his basic biography and the movement loosens us both up. He spends a couple hours each day walking this land, watching. It helps that the clouds part and a warm spring sun begins to poke through, as does the fact that we are moving out of his history — he also wrote and illustrated a guide to trees, and a second edition of his guide to birds, with 600 additional paintings — and into his present.

“I may have started out in the treasure hunt mode for birds, keeping a list, trying to find as many as I could in a day, learning all the details that would go into a field guide,” Sibley says. But what he’s interested in now, he tells me as he pauses for a moment to listen to something — ”that’s a blue jay making some weird noise” — is an even bigger challenge than cataloging the birds. “I’m trying to figure out what birds do.”

Sibley’s newest book is called What It’s Like to Be a Bird. It was published last spring, just as the world went into lockdown, which turned out to be just the right timing. His publisher printed 55,000 copies, and it quickly became clear that wouldn’t be nearly enough. The book appeared on The New York Times bestseller list in April 2020, and then again in August, and then again in December. Knopf has now produced 350,000 copies, making the book one of its most successful of 2020.

Sibley has thought a lot about why so many people took up backyard birding amid the pandemic. He thinks part of it has to do with people taking comfort in our deep, instinctive connection to nature, which continued on despite so much uncertainty. And then there’s the fact that bird-watching can be both manageable and capture our full attention; it can be very small and very large at once. “Getting outside and watching birds is a great way to escape from the constant, small distractions of life, especially the working-from-home life, which has so many distractions,” he writes. “Birdwatching turns out to be an immersive, ever-expanding puzzle that will reveal new surprises every day, right outside your door. And while it offers an escape from the daily grind, it is a connection to something much bigger.”

Northern Cardinal
Northern CardinalDavid Allen Sibley / Knopf

What It’s Like to Be a Bird is quite different from Sibley’s previous work in that it was not designed to be a field guide of any sort; it’s the size of a textbook, meant to be read on a lap, and it started out life as a book for children, approaching ornithology with the sort of child-like wonder he would often encounter when he fielded questions from the general public, who would want to know things like: Do birds sleep? How do they build nests?

“When you’re in front of a crowd and expected to talk, details of molt and subspecies — the details that went into the [guide] book — aren’t what people want to hear,” says Sibley, who’s given more than 30 talks over the past year on his virtual book tour. “So I shifted to the idea of explaining the magic of birds to the uninitiated.”

Something about him using the word “magic” felt unexpected to me. My biggest accusation against serious birding was that it was designed to strip the magic out of bird-watching by trying to find out how the trick works, the logic and reason behind it. Incidentally, birders hate the passiveness of the term “bird-watching.”

Sibley raises his Swarovski binoculars to his eyes — something he does at least every few minutes — and scans some nearby trees. “For me, the most magical thing about birds is their ability to appear and disappear at will,” he says. “We can stop here and see some that weren’t here yesterday. A pileated woodpecker could fly by at any moment.”

We are now standing in a field a hundred yards from his house, and, as if on cue, an Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) appears and lands 20 feet away on a branch. It is one of the most beautiful birds anywhere, and the first one I’ve seen all season, and we both watch it silently through our binoculars as it seems to take a moment to pose for us before flying off. “I appreciate the beauty and the shape and just enjoying it,” Sibley says.

But he is also, always, working. “I noticed that highlight of bright blue on the shoulder was really intense,” he says, as much to himself as to me. “So I’m going to make note of that in case I update the drawing.”

Sibley at his drafting table.
Sibley at his drafting table.Bob O'Connor

The more fun I have with Sibley — and it is indeed fun to go birding with the David Allen Sibley — the more I feel like I’ve brought some weird personal baggage into this encounter. That weekend a few years earlier when I’d shadowed the team in the Bird-a-thon, I had gone in thinking I would find some quirky people with a quirky passion, which is an easy recipe for a quirky story. And I did find that.

What I didn’t expect to find was some weird guilt draping over me as I realized I knew almost nothing about this fascinating avian world that has existed just around and above my own for every moment I’ve been on this earth.

The good news is that initial encounter had triggered action: I bought binoculars and a Sibley guide and a bird feeder and a hummingbird feeder and set out to rectify some things. Which I did; I, along with my children and wife, became pretty good at identifying the standard backyard birds. It was a dopamine hit every time we got one correct. But birding — I even rose to the level where I referred to it as such — can be difficult, trying, stressful. It can feel like a game, and when my 10-year-old son and I entered the Bird-a-thon last year, we met with such failure in our attempt to find anything of value to our team that when the clock ran out at 6 p.m., he was in tears, feeling like we’d let our team down.

So I returned to being a bird-watcher, not a birder. I still look at the birds. Still fill the feeders. But I made some lame resolution to stop trying to figure it all out. Even worse, I convinced myself I’d done so from some moral high ground.

But figuring it out and feeling the magic are not mutually exclusive.

As Sibley and I wrap up our meander back through the old farm fields, we walk to the center of a huge open field with huge panoramic views and watch flocks of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) following the Connecticut River north.

Turkey Vulture
Turkey VultureDavid Allen Sibley / Knopf

“People often ask how my father got me interested in birds, and my memory is not that we went birding. We went outdoors. We went for walks,” Sibley says. “People would point things out, but it was just a walk. The key is not getting binoculars and a guide and going out. It’s simply going outdoors and letting experiences happen.”

Just then, a kettle of turkey vultures flies overhead, circles for a bit like they’ve seen something of interest down below, then two of them do something that makes Sibley explode with excitement.

“Look, they’re landing on the barn!” he shouts. “The first summer we were here, a pair of vultures nested in the barn.”

“Is this them? Are they returning? Do you think they’re going to nest again?” I pester Sibley, caught up in the excitement, babbling like a child.

Sibley shrugs his shoulders and gives me a look. How the heck should I know, it seems to say. This is magic.


Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.