Monday, May 02, 2005

David Sibley Talk at National Zoo

My sister-in-law Peg invited me to join her at the David Sibley talk at the National Zoo, part of the International Migratory Bird Day celebration. We arrived early and joined the long line of people getting books signed while fellow backyard birder Madeline got us seats in the auditorium. There were so many people getting books signed that Sibley had to sign books again after the talk so that we could start only an hour late.

Sibley is about 44 years old, bespectacled and a somewhat hesitant speaker. His love for his subject comes through, though, and that love, his knowledge of his subject, his self-deprecating humor and the art that is the mainstay of his talk make for an interesting evening.

The child of an ornithologist, he drew his first bird at age seven, a "duck hawk" as it was known then. His slide show included that drawing as well as several other youthful sketches. He dropped out of college after one year to go birding full time. He quoted a friend as saying "there is a fine line between bird watching and standing around like an idiot."

Sibley toyed with the idea of doing his own field guide while in his teens, but it wasn't until he went to Europe and had to depend on a field guide to make IDs that he decided to press forward with the idea. After several false starts, he came up with the arrangement of columns and rows of similar birds on a page that became the Sibley Guide to Birds.

Of course, there was talk about the recent discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Sibley opened the program with the comment that he might have to abandon the talk as he had come down with a condition that could only be cured by a trip to Arkansas. Later he called the discovery a "triumph of the amateur naturalist" while stressing the importance of amateurs. He said each endangered bird represents a threatened ecosystem, and in saving the bird we were also saving an entire community.

A page on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, formatted to fit the Sibley Guide to Birds (not the smaller regional field guides), can be downloaded from On the website one can also find reprints of his column "Sibley on Birds", syndicated by the New York Times.

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