Friday, November 27, 2009

David Sibley

David Sibley is the man behind The Sibley Guide to Birds, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, and The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, among many other respected and well-loved bird guides. His new book is The Sibley Guide to Trees.

From his Q & A with Jill Owens at

Jill Owens: How did you decide to focus on trees for this new book?

David Sibley: About seven or eight years ago, I was out on a book-signing tour promoting my newest bird guide, and I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. I decided that I really wanted to do another big book project. That's what I really like to do. I started searching around for what kind of species to cover in my next book; I didn't want to do another, more in-depth bird guide.

There were a couple of reasons that trees came to the top of the list. First, even while I was out there on the road traveling mostly in cities, I was seeing trees every day. Trees are so much a part of our everyday life, even more than birds. It seemed like knowing about trees would be something virtually anyone can put to use every day.

The other part of the decision was that I have always tried to be an all-around naturalist, and to learn as much as I could about other things besides birds. When I thought about field guides, I've always been a little frustrated with the tree guides, because they really work in a way that bird guides have advanced from many decades ago.

Tree identification makes sense because trees are so easy to approach. [Laughter] If you see a tree that looks interesting, you can walk up to it and pull out your 10-power or 20-power hand lens and study the really microscopic features, like the shape of the bud scale, or whether there are hairs on the underside of the leaf or not. There's no time limit; you can take as long as you need to identify it.

The tree guides have never really advanced beyond the stage where bird guides were 100 years ago, where you held the bird in your hand and you went through a key to figure out what it was. Modern bird guides work a lot more on simple pattern matching, just flipping the pages until you see a picture that matches. Gradually, as you use the book more and get more experienced, you internalize that, and one day you'll just look at a bird and know what it is, and not have to look it up in the book.

I wanted a tree guide that would work more in that way, having lots of illustrations and emphasizing the natural groupings and patterns of variation, so that if you're out on a walk and you saw an interesting leaf shape, or an odd fruit, or unusual bark, you could...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue