Ruth Bass: Book and man, David Sibley is a winner



The binding on my David Allen Sibley bird book is quite damaged. The book is too heavy for a cover that’s not as soft as a paperback but not as tough as its hard-cover cousins. It’s become quite unhinged this year, so it was a perfect time to jump at the chance to get a copy of the second edition, just emerged from the printer’s cocoon.

The event was at Denison Pequotsepos Nature in Stonington, Conn., where Sibley would talk, demonstrate how he draws and paints birds and sign the new book. Publication date was March 11. The event was March 21. In the 10 intervening days, the new Sibley book hit the New York Times best-seller list and was already being poked at by people who delight in nitpicking the work and lives of experts. Too bright, they said. Too dark, they said.

Well, maybe. But probably not. The old book lacks luster compared to the new one, its inhabitants a little dull. Improved technology, Sibley explained, had provided a better print job. He nodded his admiration for the producers, because they had to print 7,000 images of birds in color, working from an entirely new set of scans. "I send it off to them, then they are pulling their hair out," he said with a grin.

Sibley depicts his bird friends standing, flying, from above and below, even sometimes flying straight at you. He sketches in the field, while he "interviews" the bird in question. He’s been doing it full time for 40 years, but started when he was 7 years old, son of a well-known ornithologist. By third grade, he had a life list of 260 birds based on his bike trips in the Guilford, Conn., area.

Marker in hand at the nature center, Sibley quickly drew a circle and an oval on the easel paper and added a couple of legs. He played what-is-it with the crowd, receiving answers from robin to heron. When he quickly sketched in a red crest, the bird became a cardinal. Then he pointed out that all birds are shaped the same way under their feathers, added a feather to the paper and explained how bird feathers are "organized."

As Sibley talks to the totally attentive group, his sense of humor emerges again and again -- dry, unexpected, funny. Asked about his education, he said he "went to college and stayed for almost a year before I finished college." He scratches his head and adds that he was majoring in biology but wanted to be birding. So he went.

In the field, he knows he may have only seconds to watch a bird. That’s one reason he doesn’t use a camera. He focuses his eyes on the bird, without the distraction of fussing with lenses, sketching as he watches. Later, he paints the bird in his studio in Concord. Always looking for details, he more than shares the frustration of all birders when he wants more time, and the bird takes off. Thus, most of his paintings are the result of many sessions with a particular species, each time providing a new piece of information about an eye, a stripe, a chirp.

His college career may have been short, but he’s a constant student and considers his drawings a "process for learning." He thinks of the drawings as practice, is forever seeing problems with "his birds" and considers all the art "a work in progress."

When they lined up to get their books signed, some audience members gushed at him, others were just plain pleased. One woman, inexplicably, brought him a dozen eggs. And a little girl, perhaps 9 or 10, showed him her scrapbook, which contained her own drawings of birds. He sat down and went through it with her, page by page, apparently as delighted as she was.

Ruth Bass, faced with the three bears, has taken down her bird feeders in Richmond.


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