Life on Earth

Sibley’s Birding Basics

How to see birds

Our contemporary Audubon, David Sibley, will mentor you in how to see birds. This is not one of his legendary field guides; instead it’s a masterful course on how birds work, distilled into a small compact book, and illustrated with his impeccable drawings. Even if you’ve been birding all your life, every page will illuminate the art of seeing them. How can you tell just from a flitting glance in the dark that was a white-throated sparrow? Sibley the grand master tells how he does it. It will be a very long time before anyone else understands and communicates this hard-won knowledge better.


A Purple Finch with representative feathers from different parts of the body.

Western Sandpiper in fresh (left) and worn (right) alternate plumage, with representative scapular feathers from each, showing the striking changes that take place gradually, over a period of about four months, with no molt. Most field guides can show only one example of each plumage, so they illustrate an “average” bird, somewhere between these extremes.


The making of hissing, shushing, and squeaking noises (known among birders as “pishing”) is done in imitation of the scolding calls of certain small songbirds. It is often combined with imitations of the calls of a small owl in order to simulate the sound of an owl that has been discovered by songbirds. Birds approach to see what’s going on and to join in scolding the predator. Pishing is most effective when you are somewhat concealed within vegetation. The birds need to be able to get close to you without leaving their cover, and ideally there should be an open spot for them to sit when they do reach you. Curiosity will bring the birds in and then draw them to a perch where they can take a clear look at you.

The visible outline of a bird changes with feather movements: bird with puffed out (left) and sleeked down (right).

Sibley’s Birding Basics
David Sibley
2002, 168 pages


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