Review: What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing–What Birds Are Doing by David Allen Sibley

by May 5, 2020

David Allen Sibley has a new book out, which is always good news for birders. His field guides are the most common ones used by most of the birders I know, and are the ones I reach for first when trying to ID or study a species.

His new book, What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing–What Birds Are Doing (available from Amazon here) is a bit different. He describes this book as a “field guide to the science of birds”, which is true, but I think it’s a lot more, too.

The book is written as two big parts: there is an extended introduction where he goes into detail on many topics about birds. There is, for instance, an extended discussion about what a feather is, why it’s unique to birds, and how the construction helps birds survive and thrive. It may be the best layman description of feathers I’ve ever read. Other topics include Coloration, Sight and the other senses, Movement, Migration and many more. Each topic is well-explained, and includes a a set of information pieces that all link into more detailed discussions in the second section.

The second section is a description of 96 different species of North American birds, with detailed descriptions of the species, its behavior, and interesting facts about the species. It is these bits of information that are references in the general topics in the introduction, so the book’s structure is set up to encourage you to browse back and forth as you explore items that catch your interest.

Each species includes one or more of Sibley’s wonderful illustrations. For instance, in the feathers section, you’ll find

Feathers did not evolve from scales. The precursors of feathers were bristle-like and hollow, and gradually evolved more complex structures.

This links into the section on egrets, where he discusses this in much more detail, with text and illustrations showing the different stages of evolution that happened with feathers over millions of years.

This is a book that is very beginner friendly — it’s a perfect work to hand to someone curious about birds or why you’re a birder. I also found it a very interesting book for me as a more experienced birder, in going through it I kept finding bits of information he explained that I didn’t know, either. I was curious about the book when I bought it; as I read through it, I found myself slowing down and taking it in more carefully and enjoying it rather than speeding up and skimming past it — and I’m not sure I can offer a bigger recommendation to a book than that.

I expected this to be a book I could recommend to new birders and those interested in birds and just starting the path to birding. What I found was a book that can talk to both new and experienced bird enthusiasts in a detailed and yet accessible way. It is a beautiful book, it is an informative book, it explains things about birds at some detail but in a way that doesn’t require you to fight to understand it, and it’s got some gorgeous illustrations of some of the wonderful species that inhabit our contintent.

It’s a book I’m going to be gifting and lending to people who express an interest in birds and don’t know where to start, or don’t understand my interest and love for them. It looks to be a great book for helping to bridge that gap and encourage people to find their own love and interest of birds. Highly recommended.