‘what it’s like to be a bird:’ a conversation with david sibley
IF YOU’RE A BIRD PERSON, as I am, you may feel as if you know this week’s podcast guest, because one of his field guides, illustrated with his artwork to help you figure out who’s who, is probably within reach at all times, alongside your binoculars. In recent weeks I’ve been keeping company with David Allen Sibley’s latest book, which is not a traditional field guide at all, after my beloved local bookstore left my pre-ordered copy on their stoop out front for curbside pickup. It’s called “What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing–What Birds Are Doing, and Why,” and that was the subject of my conversation with David.
David Sibley is the author and illustrator of the series of nature guides bearing his name, and lives and birds in Massachusetts. We talked about how a bird is ingeniously built for flight (and no, I don’t mean just the obvious wings); why pigeons and chickens bob their heads when they walk; how birds seem to know a storm is coming and go into a feeding frenzy ahead of it, and many more insights.
Plus: Enter for a chance to win a copy of the book in the comments box at the very bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the May 25, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
‘what it’s like to be a bird,’ with david sibley
Margaret: Welcome, David. Thank you for coming indoors and making time to talk.
David: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
Margaret: I was just curious, I suspect on May 9th, you were out birding for Global Big Day. Were you? Did you see anything wonderful?
David: I was … well, I’ve been at home mostly, but we’re lucky to live on an old farm in central Massachusetts. So there are lots and lots of birds right here. May 9th was not a particularly welcoming day in Massachusetts [laughter]. It was cold and windy, but spring is still coming. Birds are pushing forward and-
Margaret: They are.
David: …just forging ahead, even with the weather.
Margaret: Yes. I’m across the border from Berkshire County in New York, across from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and so same here, and it snowed twice on Big Day. [Laughter.]
Margaret: And then I just worry with the kind of spring we’ve been having in many parts of the country with so much tenacious, wintry weather, the birds trying to make nests and incubate young. I mean it seems like an uphill battle this year for them. So fingers crossed.
David: Yeah. Yeah. Everything’s delayed a little bit. I feel like here at our place, the birds, they showed up on time, more or less on time, and then they left.
David: And we’re waiting. [Laughter.]
David: We’re still waiting for the first house wren to come back and start nesting. They were here a week ago, but they disappeared, and now I suspect in the next couple of days it’ll warm up and they’ll come and set up shop.
Margaret: That’s so funny because I didn’t know that that’s what they could do, because I saw them and then they went away and then I saw them and then they went away, and there was a battle of the wrens going on where the Carolinas had their eye on the spot first that the house wrens usually use near the house each year. [Laughter.]
Margaret: I’m not sure who’s going to win.
Margaret: So I believe you began the project that became this new book, and the full title and subtitle I should tell people is “What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing—What Birds Are Doing, and Why.” I believe you began it as a project for children at first. So tell us a little about the book.
David: Yeah. So the idea … it was a slow evolution of the idea. It started as an idea for a kid’s book almost 20 years ago. And initially the idea was to do a guide to backyard birds, a guide to familiar birds, sort of a field guide simplified for kids. And I wanted it to be big and colorful and eye catching, because those are the things that I really remember enjoying about bird books when I was a kid, and also to include a lot of information about what the birds are doing. Because I find kids are … they’re interested in the names of the birds somewhat, but more interested in sort of what the birds’ superpowers are in a way. What are the amazing things that the birds are actually doing?
And as I started researching those things, I learned so much. I kept running across information in the literature that I didn’t know of, things… I thought I knew a lot about birds, but a lot of it turned out to be wrong, and the truth is even more amazing.
So as I did the research on that aspect of the book, that then became the entire book. That was so fascinating, and such a wealth of interesting information, that I decided that would be the whole book.
So it’s not a guide to familiar birds. It is in the sense that I’ve illustrated most of the most familiar species in North America and written their names next to them, but it’s not a guide to identification. It’s just a collection of exciting facts about birds.
Margaret: Well and that’s what made me happiest about spending time with the book these recent weeks—that despite all your great expertise, you acknowledge that you’re still curious and still learning and still asking why. And that’s just so important for those of us who are laypeople, relatively speaking, and birders to be and so forth. You’re encouraging us to keep asking and learning. It was Kenn Kaufman, I think, who said to me once in an interview that he hopes the awe never goes away and the curiosity never goes away, and I think that’s so important, and that comes through in this book of yours.
David: Yeah. I think … I mean that’s what keeps me excited about studying birds every day. There’s always more to learn, and I come up with new questions all the time, and the surprising things that I learned in the research for this book were just … I’d get so excited about working on the book, I would show up at dinner every night and talk about, “What I learned today. You won’t believe this!”
Margaret: [Laughter.] Right, right. Ripley’s Believe It or Not from David Sibley. So even to a layperson, as I said, such as myself, there’s a couple of things about birds that are distinctive right off. Most obviously, they have feathers, and especially that they’re capable of flight. But I learned a lot of new things in your book about a bird’s body design that might not be so obvious as their wings, but nevertheless support their ability to fly. So things I didn’t know, like that laying eggs figures into their ability to fly. So tell us some of those things, because that was kind of mind-blowing.
David: Yeah. So yeah, a lot of the adaptations of a bird’s body shape and their anatomy has developed for flight. So there are feathers, obviously, but they’re very streamlined. And the best way to design a flying machine is to have the center of mass, most of the weight being very compact and suspended below the wings. And I think I have a line in the book that if you make a paper airplane and then try taping a penny to that plane in different places, the only place you can put a penny and have the plane still fly properly is centered under the wings.
And that’s the way a bird’s body is designed. All of their muscles are in a very compact mass in the center, in their body, a very compact central body mass, and the wings are all feathers and slender bones. The legs are just slender bones. The muscles that control those are part of the central body mass.
And then the head is a lightweight skull, and the bill … all birds have a bill instead of jaws and teeth, because the bill is really lightweight, and getting rid of heavy jaws and teeth allows them to eliminate weight from the extremities of the body. So the head is really lightweight.
And without teeth, then they have to have another way to chew their food. So they generally swallow their food whole, and they have a really muscular stomach, again in the center of their body, and they swallow sand and gravel to act as teeth. So when the stomach muscles squeeze, it grinds the food up with this gravel, and that crushes the food and essentially chews it. But that’s all happening in the center of the body instead of having teeth way out at the front.
Margaret: Right, and so the female … the reason or a reason that she’s evolved to lay eggs is so that she is able to not be heavy with eggs, with these big eggs inside her during that longish time period, each breeding season. She can move about once she puts them in the safety of the nest—or the hoped-for safety of the nest.
David: Yeah. So that’s one of the advantages of eggs, is that instead of carrying young … and most birds lay multiple eggs and raise two or four or eight young in each nesting attempt. And so those eggs, they take about 24 hours to develop inside the female’s body. Then she lays the egg in the nest and she’s back to her normal weight and able to fly and gather food. And then she just sits on the eggs to keep them warm for a couple of weeks and they hatch, and then lots of food is delivered and hopefully, if they’re not discovered by a predator, that the young fledge. It all takes three weeks or four weeks for most birds.
Margaret: Yeah. So you just mentioned the beak or the bill of the bird, and I think actually I read an opinion piece you did in “The New York Times” recently, and of course in the new book as well. You tell us to, if we want to get to know a bird, and identify a bird, we should look at its face, look at its beak first. So talk a little bit more about the beak, because I mean here are birds, you mentioned their muscular stomach for digestion because they don’t have teeth, but they also don’t have hands to pick up the food and serve themselves.
David: Yeah. So the bill or beak has to be adapted to whatever that bird’s preferred food is. It’s what they use to catch, pick up, manipulate their food and then swallow it. So the shape of the bill in different species is very distinctively different. It’s very consistent within a species. All Northern cardinals [above] have essentially the same bill shape; all woodpeckers; all thrushes. So if you learn those subtle differences in bill shape—and it takes some practice to get to know the birds well enough to be able to see and assess these differences in bill shape—but there are really distinctive differences.
And as soon as you get a sense of the bill shape, you’ll know what that bird tends to eat, which will help to tell you which group it’s in. If it’s a sparrow that eats seeds, it’ll have a big, heavy triangular bill. A warbler or a gnatcatcher that eats little tiny insects, they’ll have long slender bills, very pointed.
And another thing that I … one of the things that I think makes bird-watching so much fun or so accessible to us is that birds communicate by sight and by sound the same way we do. So the way a bird looks is really important to the other birds. So their appearance is very important in an evolutionary sense, that they have to look right to other members of their species.
So unlike a tree that can grow in any form that suits the conditions that it’s in [laughter], a bird will grow exactly the same way every time, because it needs to look right to other members of its species, and the most distinctive part of a bird is generally the face. There’s usually some dark and light pattern, some colorful markings around the eyes. The bill is often colored as well as being a distinctive shape. So looking at that part of the bird first and focusing on that is always a good way to start when you’re trying to identify an unfamiliar bird. [Below, the acorn woodpecker.]
Margaret: So speaking of beaks, grosbeaks, right in their name they have the word beak [laughter].
Margaret: And if you look at their beak versus a brown creeper, who is one of my favorite birds.
David: Oh, yeah.
Margaret: I just adore the brown creeper and almost always am blessed with an individual right outside my kitchen window in a Thuja, a very, very old triple-trunked white cedar of some kind that predates me and it has very shaggy bark, and boy, the creeper loves it.
David: Oh, yeah.
David: Yeah. The creeper’s bill is like some curved forceps that a surgeon would use to do some very, very fine work. And the grosbeak’s bill is more like a pair of pliers that you use to crush something. [Laughter.]
Margaret: And then you’re talking about looking at the face and that this has these distinctive characteristics, even within a group of birds, like the thrushes … and every spring, I have such trouble remembering who’s who and I have to go to your books [laughter], your Eastern book, and I have to remember, now, who has the pale colored sort of spectacles around its eyes (the Swainson’s), versus who has the white eye ring, versus who has more spots. Anyway, right around the face are so many … and I have to try not to get too distracted onto trying to see the whole bird, because then we run the risk of going back and forth to the book and trying to match it, and I think we don’t look at the bird long enough. Do you know what I mean?
David: Yeah, and that’s one of the tricky things about bird identification, is you really have to look at all of those things. [Laughter.] It’s important to know, and you learn with experience like, “Oh, that’s a thrush. I have to study the face and I also have to look at the color of the tail.”
David: Those kinds of things you learn with experience, but it’s important to get an overall sense of the size and shape and what the bird is doing, but along with that focus on the face.
Margaret: Yes. O.K., good. I remember years ago having one of those odd moments of identification or connection with birds. It wasn’t really a big aha at all because it’s so obvious, I’m embarrassed almost to say it, yet it felt like an aha. And it was when I realized that they share a trait that we have, which is that they stand on two legs, generally speaking, and so they’re, I don’t know, bipeds. Would you say bipeds?
Margaret: And I love to watch their moves. I love to watch … so sometimes I recognize a bird because of some distinctive motion that it has. A Louisiana waterthrush loves my water garden in the back and comes in the garden, and this bird has this little sort of bouncing rear end thing that it does, this little dance, this little motion, and it’s hilarious because its species name, I think … I don’t know how you pronounce it, but motacilla.
Margaret: Parkesia motacilla have a specific epithet of its Latin name means tail-wagger. So I’m not the only person who noticed that. Do you know what? I love that stuff, or a redstart who fans its tail to flush out insects. So I wanted to talk about some, have you tell us about some of the moves, because you observe so many different birds. I mean pigeons, why do they bob their heads? Why do some birds bob their heads? Birds that kick versus walk regularly.
David: Yeah. Birds, they’ve got all kinds of different movements for different purposes. Some for foraging, some for … Well, the pigeons bob their heads as a way of keeping their vision steady. So we say pigeons bob their heads, but they’re actually holding their head perfectly still as they walk. While their body moves forward steadily, the head snaps into position and stays there, fixed in space while the body moves forward underneath it. And when they take their next step, the head snaps forward again and stops at a fixed position. So in between each head movement, they’re getting an absolutely stable, clear view of everything around them, and that’s why pigeons bob their heads, and chickens, and ovenbirds.
Other birds do the same thing, but the funny thing I learned in my reading as I was researching for this book: Scientists, researchers who were studying this put pigeons on treadmills-
David: …so that while the pigeons walked, their surroundings didn’t change, and when their surroundings didn’t change, they didn’t bob their heads. So pigeons on a treadmill just walk without moving their head.
Margaret: Oh my goodness.
David: Or if they’re blindfolded, they walk without moving their head, because it’s all stimulated visually. So that’s what the head bobbing is all about, but yeah, it’s fascinating to try to figure out what all these things mean, or what their purpose is.
Margaret: Yeah, like kicking in the leaf litter, like the towhee and the sparrows, and I mean I guess that’s to get some food out of there, isn’t it, to find-
David: Yeah. They’re trying to uncover, to scratch through the leaf litter and the dirt and look for insects or larvae or other food that’s in there.
The funny thing I find … I find it funny [laughter], one of the things about that is that those birds and quail or chickens do the same thing, but they scratch with one foot at a time.
But the birds, when they’re doing that, they can’t see what’s going on underneath them. They’re just kicking around in the dirt and then they have to stop and step back and look at the hole that they just made to see if they’ve uncovered anything. It’s kind of like scratching behind your back and then turning around to see if you found anything good. [Above, song sparrows from Arizona, left, and British Columbia, show a range of coloration.]
Margaret: That’s funny. There are so many miscellaneous kind of aha’s in the book, like why is the chickadee always the first one to find the feeder when you put up a feeder? [Laughter.]
Margaret: Or what signals to birds to feed like mad before a storm? I loved that one, something about air pressure or something?
David: Yeah, yeah. Birds, they can sense air pressure, and that’s probably a really useful skill for monitoring their altitude while they’re flying, as well as sensing oncoming storms. So when the pressure starts to drop with an approaching storm, I guess the research shows that the only thing that birds really do to react to that is they start eating a lot.
David: Presumably they have a place in mind where they’re going to shelter during the storm, and what they need to do is stock up on supplies, which means just eating and eating and eating. And you’ll notice that if you have a bird feeder, when there’s a snow storm coming or a rain storm, that you’ll get a lot more activity at the bird feeder in the hours just before it starts snowing. That’s usually the busiest time at a bird feeder. And that’s the birds sensing the dropping pressure and knowing that they’re in for a storm, and they just want to stock up on food and get enough reserves in their body so that they can sit tight for a day or two while the storm blows through.
Margaret: I just wanted to mention something from the very end of the book that I’ve read on your blog over the years, and elsewhere that you’ve written, just a couple of things sort of urging listeners about helping keep songbirds, especially, safe, and the two subjects of window strikes and cats. I wonder if you could just briefly tell us a little urging about those two things.
David: They’re both really serious problems, but so diffuse. Everyone has windows on their house and they probably have a couple of birds a year that hit the house, hit the windows on the house and sometimes die. The birds see a reflection in the window and they think they can fly through it and they can’t. But it happens infrequently enough at each house that it doesn’t seem like an urgent issue to each individual, but in aggregate, it is a serious issue, and there’s lots of resources. The American Bird Conservancy has really good resources online about that.
Margaret: O.K. I’ll give links, thank you. Yes.
David: And cats are even more … they’re the most serious direct human-related threat to birds. Even house cats that are fed, if they’re allowed outside, their instinct is to kill birds and mice, and hundreds of millions of birds every year are killed by cats. [The American Bird Conservancy on cats’ impact on birds.]
Margaret: Yeah. Keep them in.
David: Yeah. Better to keep … it’s better for the cats, and it’s better for the birds. Keep cats indoors, and there shouldn’t be colonies of feral cats allowed to live in the wild, in parks or refuges. They’re not native and it’s just bad for wildlife-
Margaret: For the ecology.
Margaret: Well I love the book, “What It’s Like to Be a Bird,” and I’m so glad that it came out just at this very unusual moment in our lives, because I’ve, as I said in the beginning, been spending a lot of time with it. So thank you, David Sibley, and again: Thanks for making time indoors today to talk.
David: Thank you.
(Illustrations by David Sibley, from :What It’s Like to Be a Bird,” used with permission.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 25, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).