5 Questions with David Allen Sibley on The Sibley Guide to Trees
I’ve already written about how much I like The Sibley Guide to Trees. The Sibley Guide to Birds is pretty phenomenal too, as is every other volume in Sibley’s series of guides and reference books. The massive respect I have for David Allen Sibley made my opportunity to interview him regarding his newest publication a real thrill. Once you read his unedited responses to my five questions, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this interview too.
1. Why trees? Why not butterflies or grasses or mammals?
I actually started working on a guide to butterflies eight years ago, but I found that they were just too hard to see. I wanted to study something that I could see all the time, 365 days a year, identify from a distance and really immerse myself in. If you stand almost anywhere in North America and scan around with binoculars, you can see and identify birds and trees. You’re just not going to see shrews or salamanders or (usually) butterflies. Secondly, I felt like there was a gap in the tree identification literature, an opportunity to make a real contribution by creating a tree guide that adopted some of the methods of modern bird identification. The existing tree guides mostly used a key-based approach that went out of style in birding 80 years ago. I tried to make a more holistic, illustration-based guide that would allow people to begin to identify trees at a distance.
2. If you can speak specifically to birders, how can knowledge of trees directly enhance the birding experience?
The obvious advantage for a birder to know trees is that it makes pointing out birds easier – you can say “it’s in the hackberry” instead of “in the green tree, the one with the leaves”, and that’s nice but I think it’s a somewhat trivial thing, or that there are much bigger reasons to learn how to identify trees. Knowing trees might also be make you better able to recognize different habitats and fine tune your expectations of what birds you’ll see. I just hope people will get a lot of satisfaction out of knowing more about the natural world. Tree identification gives you a different perspective than bird identification, expanding your horizons a bit as you get to know and understand another part of the ecosystem.
3. I notice you distinguish native and nonnative trees in The Sibley Guide to Trees but don’t perceive a prejudice against exotics. What is your position on native vs. nonnative trees?
I knew that it was important to include commonly cultivated exotic trees in the guide, because that’s what most people will see when they first take the book outside – Ginkgo, Austrian Pine, Callery Pear, Zelkova, etc. I would prefer to see native species, for all the well-known reasons, but I’m also willing to accept that species like Norway Maple and Ailanthus (like starlings and Rock Pigeons) are here to stay. This is an identification guide, so I only wanted to introduce people to all the species they might encounter. Saying “Meet the Norway Maple, it doesn’t belong here and you shouldn’t like it” just seems impolite and too negative.
4. The Sibley Guide to Trees includes a species checklist. Have you encountered many tree listers? Will this be the next big thing?
I have only met a couple of tree listers, I decided to include the checklist in this book mostly because there aren’t any readily available tree checklists out there, whereas you can find dozens of bird checklists in any variation you want. And I’ve been using the tree checklist myself to keep track of my life list. Tree-watching will never have the same sense of excitement and urgency as birding, the idea of a “tree sightings hotline” sounds comical, but I hope tree-listing will be the next big thing, because listing has been the impetus for all kinds of discoveries in birds.
5. What’s next for you? Will you be delving more deeply into trees, circling back to birds, or shedding light on an entirely new branch of the tree of life?
My plan for now is to circle back to birds for a couple of smaller projects, and then back to trees. I won’t be heading off in any new directions (at least for the foreseeable future) for the same reason that I chose trees in the first place – gaining the experience and expertise that I would want before tackling a new topic would take so much field work that it’s just not practical. The good news is that between bird study and tree study I now have plenty to keep me busy for many decades.