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David Allen Sibley Takes You Bird-Watching Amid Coronavirus Shutdowns


You may have noticed it's spring. Trees leafing, flowers blooming, and the birds - so many birds. And as Craig LeMoult of member station WGBH reports, that's welcome news to an acclaimed nature illustrator who has a new book coming out that may just be the thing for bird watchers stuck at home.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: David Allan Sibley tromps through a brushy area near his western Massachusetts home and spots a tiny songbird with a patch of yellow on its head.

DAVID ALLEN SIBLEY: Here's a golden crowned kinglet right here - right there.

LEMOULT: The bird hops from branch to branch as Sibley watches intently.

SIBLEY: Now, that's unusual. That is not a rare bird, but unusual to see it that cooperative that close.

LEMOULT: Sibley's the son of an ornithologist and has been drawing birds since he was five. He dropped out of college after just a year so he could travel around the country in a camper van looking for birds.

SIBLEY: And whatever birds I ran across, whatever birds were cooperative, I would sit down and sketch. So something like that - a golden crowned kinglet like that that just pops up out in the bush 10 feet away and forages for a couple of minutes. That would be a great opportunity.

LEMOULT: He turned those sketches into thousands of detailed paintings, published now 20 years ago in "The Sibley Guide To Birds." It's become something of a bible for birders. In an age when even casual bird fans hike through the woods carrying digital cameras with powerful lenses, Sibley he says he thinks it's the paintings that make his guide an enduring tool for identifying birds.

SIBLEY: I think it all boils down to just the fact that the illustration allows me to simplify the image - to strip away all the extraneous information that's in a photograph.

LEMOULT: Sibley now has a new book coming out that's in a very different style. Along with his illustrations are essays about what birds are up to and why. Most of his career's been focused on identifying birds, but in researching their behavior he realized how much he actually didn't know.

SIBLEY: It was just amazing to me what - what's going on in the birds' minds and what they're experiencing.

LEMOULT: Sibley's new book, called "What It's Like To Be A Bird," is out this week. It decodes the behavior of sparrows, robins, finches, pigeons, and other common birds that people might spot out their windows as they're stuck at home right now. He had a book tour scheduled for its release this month, but like everything else right now, that's canceled because of the pandemic. So for now, he's staying home and going for walks in the woods.

SIBLEY: A fox sparrow is singing right up here.

LEMOULT: It's a migrant bird, he says, that just arrived here in Massachusetts on its way north.

SIBLEY: A sure sign that spring is coming. The weather's warming. It's a blue sky, sunny day. And the fox sparrows are singing, so...

LEMOULT: Even with so much on hold and uncertain at the moment, there's something reassuring in that. For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.
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