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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Springtime Birding with David Sibley

Air Date: Week of

David Sibley’s hand painted portrait of a Mute Swan and cygnets. (© David Sibley)

A great migration is underway in the northern hemisphere, as migratory birds head north to start a family. Throughout their journeys these long-distance travelers rely on well-stocked pit-stops, like Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Massachusetts. That’s where Host Steve Curwood meets up with ornithologist David Sibley one fine spring morning, to listen to copious birdsong and discuss the second edition of Sibley’s popular Guide to Birds.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

In this season of Spring and Earth Day, we look back at some of the stories that have inspired us. So today we take you back to five o’clock on a May morning in 2014 when we headed out to the Great Meadows National Wildlife refuge in Concord, Massachusetts, to meet up with David Sibley, author of the popular Sibley’s Guide to Birds. These marshes, lakes, and woodlands are pit stops for migrating birds heading north and home for local birds looking to find a mate, and as sunlight started to flood the sky, the dawn chorus filled the face of David Sibley with a smile.


CURWOOD: So, who are we listening to here?

SIBLEY: Ahhh, we're hearing Northern Cardinal, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Warbling Vireo, Red-winged Blackbird, Swamp Sparrow, Yellow Warbler, Common Grackle, Catbird, Common Yellowthroat, Canada Goose.

CURWOOD: Gee, I think that you probably just doubled my life list for around here.


SIBLEY: I’m hearing a Northern Waterthrush singing in the bushes right there. That chirping sound descending in pitch.


CURWOOD: A Northern Waterthrush. Let’s look at your book. Where are we to find a Northern Waterthrush?

SIBLEY: It’s one of the warblers. So it’ll be...

CURWOOD:...in the warbler section back here.


SIBLEY: Right here.

CURWOOD: You’ve added something I didn’t see before in your other works which is a description of what the bird sounds like. Can you read that?

SIBLEY: A song of loud of emphatic clear chirping notes generally falling in pitch and accelerating loosely paired or tripled with little variation; called a loud hard sprik rising with strong K sound; flight call a buzzy high slightly rising zip.

An early morning in the Great Meadows National Refuge, located in Concord, Massachusetts. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

CURWOOD: Your descriptions are almost the way people describe wine, with a little bit of this flavor and a hint of that and all that.

SIBLEY: Yes, we do. It’s so difficult to describe in words what a bird sounds like. You end up using words like mellow and rich and liquid and sharp and it does just sound like the descriptions of taste. [LAUGHS] If the words are used consistently and used repeatedly you kind of get a sense of what each one means and you’ll learn that yes, that thrushes tend to have a liquid sound, and orioles and robins, their voices have a rich sound. It’s fun to try to come up with words to describe all these sounds.

CURWOOD: So your first book, really, so many folks see that as a gold standard for a birding guide. So why do another?

SIBLEY: As soon as the first book went to the printer back in 2000, I started taking notes and gathering information about things I wanted to change, or new things I had learned. I look at those paintings and think I could do this or that a little bit better, or add details, or add new illustrations to show different things.

CURWOOD: Well, let’s take a step out into the meadow.

SIBLEY: Alright. Let’s head down this path through the marsh here.


SIBLEY: So I’m hearing a Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Grey Catbird, Red-winged Blackbird singing.


Up above us there’s an Indigo Bunting singing up in the Maple right there, that high pitched sound, and every note is repeated, every phrase is repeated. The Indigo Bunting is a migrant. They don’t normally nest right here. So we can be confident that that bird probably just arrived last night. It probably flew up from the south last night, dropped in here sometime early this morning, and now it’s checking things out, gets up to the top of the tree and sings a little bit to see if anyone answers, and it’s kind of assessing the area to figure out if this is a good place to stay for the summer, and I think the answer’s going to be no. It’s too wet for Indigo Buntings. They don’t nest here, so it’ll move on. Maybe it’s already moved on. I don’t hear it anymore.

Living on Earth's Bobby Bascomb and Steve Curwood go birding with guide David Sibley. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

This time of year, all the birds are singing, and it’s so much easier to walk through an area listening and hear what’s around, and it’s possible to identify every species, essentially every sound can be identified.


SIBLEY: One of the things about birdsongs is their ears work a lot faster than ours. Their ears and their brain processing of sounds works a lot faster than we do, so they’re hearing an incredible amount of information more than we do. If you take a bird sound and slow it down to about a quarter speed, then you start to hear the kind of detail they’re hearing.

CURWOOD: So why is it that birds are, well, singing the loudest in the morning?

SIBLEY: I think the song in the morning is mostly kind of a checking in with the neighbors. Male birds sing to kind of defend their territory, to mark the edges of their territory. So they’ll circle around to perches at the edge of their territory and sing from those spots and their neighbors, they’ll recognize the sounds of their neighbors. They recognize each other. So the morning song is kind of just an announcement that, “I’m still here. Are you still here? Yes. OK. Territorial boundaries still enforced? Yes. OK.”

CURWOOD: And what about the migrants?

SIBLEY: Migrants, they might be singing to sort of test the area, to see if they get a response, to see if there’s a female nearby that might respond to the song. But mostly, it’s probably just hormones. It kind of goes back to the old poetic thing about birdsong just being an outpouring of joy, the uncontrollable urge to sing with the dawn of the spring morn, and these migrants, they’re near their breeding grounds here, they’re heading north, they’re just about to enter this phase of life where they’ll find a mate, they’ll set up a territory, raise young, and they just can’t control themselves. They sing at dawn.

CURWOOD: One of the things that has certainly changed about birding is our awareness that the climate is shifting, and that means that birds are shifting. How do you account for that when you do a habitat range in your books?

SIBLEY: In the 40 plus years since I’ve been birding, starting in Connecticut in the 1970s and now in Massachusetts, I see really big changes in birds. Some species have increased tremendously like Canada goose, Wild turkey, Red-bellied Woodpecker. Some of those species are southern birds that are moving north, and some of that’s probably due to climate change, but there are all kinds of other things going on in bird populations, and a lot of species have declined. But it’s about equal numbers of sort of winners and losers in the last 40 years, so over that span of time, 40 years, the maps and the bird guide would have changed a lot for probably 10 percent of the species.

CURWOOD: 10 percent of the species in different places 40 years ago. What accounts for that, do you think?

SIBLEY: Mostly it’s changes in habitat. The big change here in the northeast is that, well, 100 years ago it was almost all farmland, there was the very little forest. And 40 years ago, we were just coming out of that, and now, a lot of farms have been left to grow up to forest and all the suburbs that were built in the ‘50s and ‘60s with trees planted then, the trees are now 60 years old and big enough to support a lot of forest birds, the ones that can coexist with people like robins and bluejays and grackles and Wild turkey and even birds like Pileated woodpecker. It was incredibly rare in Connecticut when I was a kid in the ’70s, and now they’re pretty widespread and found in the suburbs.

CURWOOD: Indeed, and hungry in the suburbs too.

SIBLEY: Yes, sometimes unpopular when they look for food in the siding your house, but they can do a lot of damage. [LAUGHS]

CURWOOD: So you’re an ornithologist, you’re a writer and an artist. And you hand-paint every one of these bird pictures in your guide yourself. Tell me about the process and why you do it.

SIBLEY: When I’m in the field, I’m watching birds, I’m studying shape and posture and doing pencil sketches and then, so I have years and years, thousands and thousands of pencil sketches from the field. When I’m back in the studio I get all of my pencil sketches and I use photographs as reference to get all the details right, and I work on paintings in the studio. For me, and we’re really lucky in this time now, and it’s really in the last 15 years that photographs have become so numerous, to have so many photographers doing such good work and everything’s available on the internet that for the work that I do, I can find hundreds of photographs of every species. Illustrators like Peterson had to use specimens for their reference material.

CURWOOD: Yes, I guess Audubon famously shot everything he drew.

SIBLEY: Yes, he did, and he was traveling through the woods with nothing but a shotgun and his painting supplies. He didn’t have binoculars, he didn’t have cameras, nobody had a camera. There weren’t even books he could carry with him to help identify the birds. It was just him and his paintings.

Sibley points out a songbird. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)


SIBLEY: A pair of mute swans flying by.

CURWOOD: Not so mute.

SIBLEY:[LAUGHS] Yeah, that sound is their wings. They do make vocal sounds also. They’re not entirely mute, but that sound is produced by their wing feathers. Just sort of humming through the air with each wing stroke.

CURWOOD: So, I have to ask you, what got you hooked on birding?

SIBLEY: I have always been interested in birding. My father’s an ornithologist so I’m sure that had something to do with it.

CURWOOD: [LAUGHS] I guess so.

SIBLEY: But, yeah, birding was a part of what our family did, I just really enjoyed it, the birding and I was always drawing birds also.

CURWOOD: So when did you realize that, well, this would be the work part of your life?

SIBLEY: As a young teenager in Connecticut, I was going out on the weekends with people from the New Haven bird club and watching birds, identifying birds, learning about them. People were supportive of my interest in birds and my drawing, very encouraging. And Roger Tory Peterson who had illustrated the most popular field guide at the time lived about 20 miles away. I met him a few times when I was a kid, and to have him flip through a few pages of my sketchbook and look at it and say, “Oh, these are very nice. Keep it up.” And I think I grew up with the idea that writing a field guide was a perfectly viable career choice. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in birds.

CURWOOD: Well, that’s a better way to grow up birding than being dragged out at five in the morning to stand in the cold.

SIBLEY: [LAUGHS] We did plenty of that too.

CURWOOD: There’s something about birding, which even if you don’t want to, it kind of grabs you.

SIBLEY: Yes, and the popularity of birding has increased so much in the last 40 years. When I started out in the ’70s, it was rare to see another birdwatcher, and now, you go to a place like Great Meadows here, the parking lot at times will be filled with cars of birdwatchers. I think it’s just a desire to connect with nature, and birdwatching is just away, it’s an excuse to set the alarm for 4:30 in the morning and go out even if it’s raining or windy, and get outdoors and just experience that. And it’s not so much about the birds, the birds are kind of the hook, the pull that gets us out there, but to a birdwatcher, it’s as much just the experience of being outdoors and feeling the change in weather and seeing the seasons change and being aware of those patterns. I think that's the real draw.

CURWOOD: David Sibley, thank you so much.

SIBLEY: Thanks, it's been a pleasure. What a great morning.

CURWOOD: For 2020 David Sibley has published a book called “What It’s Like To Be A Bird.”



Sibley Guidebooks

More on David Allen Sibley’s most recent book, What It’s Like to Be a Bird

David Allen Sibley also creates drawing videos for Audubon

The #sketchwithsibley tag on Instagram


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