I’ve always loved bird watching. As a child, I dreamed of becoming an ornithologist. I made it my business to discover all there was to know about birds. I would watch countless documentaries on birds, I would set up bird feeders in the backyard every winter, I would learn bird calls from a cd that my grandmother had given me, and I would always enjoy going to the park, binoculars in tow, and stand in the woods and look up into the canopy above me for any flutter and flick of wings.
There was one however, one constant companion to these birding excursions and that was of course David Sibley’s The Sibley Guide to Birds.
It was my constant companion, my one true way to discover what bird I had recently discovered. That’s why it was extra special when, this past Friday evening, I was lucky enough to sit in on a presentation given my Mr. Sibley as he discussed his life, his work, his art, and his love of birds. He even signed my copy of his field guide and I got to meet him!
Come on, that’s like John James Audubon signing a copy of The Birds of America and hand delivering it to me!
If you open any of his field guides, you’ll see their are many intricate and detailed drawings of every bird found within North America. Do know that Mr. Sibley sketched and painted every one of these birds. And when asked by one of the audience members why he doesn’t take photographs of the birds instead, he informed the crowd that a photograph captures one bird, in an exact location, that truly existed within that moment. He (Mr. Sibley) prefers painting because it a likeness to a bird, but it does not capture each individual creature in each unique circumstance that it may find itself.
It’s an interesting concept to wrap your head around, but think of it this way – you see a photograph of a snowy owl on the white, frosty, tundra. However, you then see a snowy owl flying over a building in Detroit. You see this bird and you think “Wait! That can’t be a snowy owl, we aren’t in the tundra.” But, if you saw a painting of the bird (with no background or habitat indication) and then saw it flying around the city, you would just take the bird as it is, without any preconceived association. Make sense?
Overall, it was a great evening and it made me realize that sometimes, when I’m caught up in so many fiction books that I love, I often forget how many non-fiction books are truly astounding because they shed light on this mysterious and wondrous world.