Chances are we all know one of those stereotypical old lady birders. You know how the whole drill: a backyard-confined birdwatcher who can’t tell the difference between a House Finch and a House Sparrow and only set up a feeder because of the 21 cats they own, each of which used to be outdoor cats but have, according to their owner, “never touched a feather on a bird’s head.” * And chances are that backyard birder will have, through some form or the other, heard of the name Sibley.
Perhaps the more vivacious of birders, who fancy and go through with a twitch on occasion, will even give the full name of Sibley and bubble on about his field guide on what is now a birder bandwagon. Simply the effuse of “David Sibley! His field guide is my favorite!” will reveal more about a birder than their binoculars. And while that statement may have legitimate backing, a fifth of those people don’t own any Sibley field guides, or any of the major ones anyway.
Enough of the slick-slack, though. There’s no doubt about it; Sibley is a great guy. And a few months before, I was left in jaw-dropping awe after discovering an article on how Sibley pioneered a whole new method of cladistic analysis involving DNA hybridization, and had proposed such wonderful things as the idea that totipalmate birds were not a natural grouping.
Writing a field guide AND developing a radical new method of DNA analysis? Truly jaw-dropping! Well, at least jaw-dropping until I learned that there were not one, but two, legendary ornithologists with the last name of Sibley that knew each other personally, and furthermore, they were in no way related. Not even distant cousins to the 3rd removed. It was a shock. A shock I had somehow overlooked the fact that there were two great Sibleys.
To see if I was alone in my ignorance of the “other Sibley,” I queried a few young birders, all knowledgeable, about his existence and influence. Responses varied from “He wrote the Sibley field guides,” to “David Sibley is THE Sibley.” Depressing maybe, for Charles Sibley’s ghost, given how his personality is described by a fellow of his in this neat summary:
“.. a rebel with a cause. In argument he would bulldoze through, brooking no contradiction. Critics were baited with an acid tongue, and, in fits of temper, he could be a cruel mimic. In short, lesser mortals were not tolerated easily and, as has been said by others, collegiate friends were few. ... I never found him malicious or vindictive, even against those who had tried to bring him down. Nor was he particularly sophisticated or cultured, just a big, up-front Yank possessed by 'the big picture' in avian phylogeny and convinced of the righteousness of his cause and invincibility of his intellect”
A rebel with a cause? Yes, indeed, because Charles Sibley revolutionized cladistics and DNA analysis with his method of DNA hybridization and daring new taxonomy. . The AOU, which most bird-politically involved** birders have a love-hate relationship with (and in some cases a hate-despise relationship), has been looked straight into the eye by Charles Sibley. And since Sibley’s field guides are based on AOU taxonomy, Sibley influenced Sibley. Sibley-ception.
*I’m not trying to be offensive. Old lady backyard birders are just a stereotyped archetype among many birders.
**Splitter or lumper? Willet species or Willets species? What about Redpolls? Forget the 2016 election, the 2016 AOU proposals are on.