David Sibley brings feminism to birding, speaks on Audubon and Peterson,

Did you wonder what David Sibley does when he isn’t out birding, isn’t painting those wonderful illustrations, isn’t home with his wife and two sons? Well, a few weeks ago on a Thursday night David Sibley spoke at the zoo in St. Louis about Audubon, Peterson, and the point of field guides.

When David was becoming the birder he is, he told us he never understood Audubon’s paintings. He inadvertently painted for us a vivid picture of the young high school David Sibley, shunned by his peers for his odd interests, studying birds, bird guides, and running around everywhere in pursuit of the best birds. What did his father, an ornithologist at Yale, think of his amateur son?

In a way you could say that David Sibley brought feminism to birding by treating females front and center, closely followed by immatures. Perhaps the pages most turned to in any bird field guide are those of the warblers. When people speak of the jewels in the trees that scatter in the spring forest at High Island, or Point Pelee, they usually think of the brilliant male blackburnian warbler, or the Wilson’s warbler, or even a flashy American redstart. But birds exist at other times than the spring migration. Birds exist in other forms than the mature male. What about the females? What about the juveniles? What do they look like? What do they do? Sibley nearly forces us to pay attention, for that all-important warbler summary, on page 424 and 425 in my big book, covers first-year winter females with nary a male in sight.

I want to know about the females, about the juveniles, even about the males. What are the proportions of each? Is the population growing? Are the young migrating well? Do they do so at the same time as their parents? In what species do the males come north to establish their territories before the females? I want to understand birds, and males alone, however flashy, are only part of the story.

But David Sibley did not talk about his brilliant field guides at this meeting, though he did sign them. He did not rail about the inadequacy of most field guides, or about how poorly they treated females. Instead he uncomfortably acted like the public figure he is. He showed us some Audubon paintings that seemed so unnatural to him, for their contorted poses, their crowding. One was the Carolina parakeets, now extinct. And then David shared with us how he finally understood Audubon. He understood the paintings not as scenes from nature, but as compilations of different things the birds might do, in poses as startlingly natural for his time as David’s own females are for our time. And so he learned to appreciate the naturalness of Audubon.

When David Sibley began talking about Roger Tory Peterson, he lost his voice. Pauses were more frequent than sentences. I can’t remember what he actually choked out about Peterson, but it did not excite, so I let my imagination fill in. David Sibley was probably born in 1962 (Wikipedia) or 1961 (front page of his book). This means he certainly began birding in childhood with a copy of Peterson’s A field guide to the birds in his hands, or jammed into the back of his pants. He must have loved the book; he must still love it, even as he grew increasingly frustrated with it. Let’s look at those warblers as Peterson tells about them. I have two of his books in front of me, both eastern United States. One is copyrighted in 1947, the second edition, but must have been obtained by me and my husband separately in the 1960s. The other book I have is copyright 2002, the fourth edition from 1980. In the earlier book females are tucked demurely behind their males when they are shown at all. For quite a few, females are not shown, but there is a note that says “see text.” This was not so easily done in this early edition where the plates and the text were separate. The tucked-behind females show their heads, throats, even part of the belly and tail, but wings, wing bars, much of the body is obscured.

Peterson is discouraging in other ways. Autumn warblers are on a different set of pages entitled Confusing Fall Warblers. Who would even try, given that heading? Wouldn’t you rather be told that face markings can often define a bird, though they may be more subtle in some? Of course we really know the bird from its behavior, whether it flits low and spreads its tail, or pokes at the bundles of dead leaves, or preens in the highest branches. But Peterson is what we had. Peterson has those copyrighted lines that point to characters important for species identification. In the modern Peterson the females have stepped nearly entirely forward, out of their male’s shadow, though the tail tip is usually still hidden behind him. Even in today’s edition, fall warblers are still confusing.

Sibley’s talk was one of three in the 2011 Whitney and Anna Harris Conservation Forum, entitled Giants in the American Conservation Movement. The other two eloquent speakers were Susan Flader who spoke on Aldo Leopold, and Maril Hazlett, who spoke on Rachel Carson. I want to learn more about my new home state, and so will be buying Susan Flader’s book, Thinking like a mountain, on Aldo Leopold. I realized I already have another book she edited, The river of the mother of god, and other essays by Aldo Leopold. I got it down from the high shelf, and will read it again.

I fear that for many, getting David Sibley to sign their field guide was a major draw of the evening. He sat at the table, signing books before he spoke, after he spoke. I wonder if he ever got to grab one of those rubbery veggie wraps, or white-bread turkey sandwiches we got? I brought a couple of our Sibley field guides and we cruised around before the event, then stood in line because we saw no one we knew. We got no signatures, however, because the line closed for the talk before we reached the head. Afterwards, we found friends, and so chatted instead.

Why get your book signed? To show you were there? To get a shiver of connection? To increase its value? I know authors have to sign books, but I bet David Sibley would have liked to tell us to take the book and get outside, for that is what they are for, a key to nature, best outside.

Sibley, Flader Hazlett.jpg

Maril Hazlett, Susan Flader, David Sibley, taking questions after their talks.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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