When David Sibley Is Your Art Teacher

The esteemed ornithologist recently visited Brooklyn elementary schoolers taking part in Audubon New York's "For the Birds!" education program.

David Sibley is standing at an easel in front of an audience of squirming children. “I’m going to start by drawing the shape of a bird, and I’m going to let you guys guess what species it might be," the renowned ornithologist tells the kids. As the second and third grade students watch his marker, a bird with long, spindly legs, a lengthy beak, and stubby wings takes shape.

“Flamingo?” guesses one little boy. “Ostrich?” guesses a little girl sitting in the front. “Egret?” suggests another. “A stork?” “Canada Goose?” “I know, I know! A Great Blue Heron?” Sibley chuckles and nods at each excited suggestion, but the kids haven’t cracked his puzzle. 

It’s a chilly April morning in Brooklyn, New York, and a field trip day for the second, third, and fifth grade students at St. Stanislaus Kostka Academy. While the fifth-grade class starts the excursion with a bird walk, the younger students are upstairs in the Prospect Park Boathouse, getting a drawing lesson from the most famous bird illustrator in the world.

“Those are all good guesses,” Sibley says, “but now I’m going to draw the feathers.” He takes a blue marker and draws a wide outline around the skinny body. “Wow, that’s a lot!” exclaims one little girl. “Oh, I know!” murmur several children excitedly. “Northern Cardinal?” says one boy when Sibley turns back to the group. “Oh! Blue Jay!” exclaims another, correctly guessing the mystery bird.

The children are able to rattle off so many species thanks to For the Birds!, an environmental education program run by Audubon New York. For four, eight, or sixteen weeks, Audubon educators embed with elementary or middle school teachers with a customized curriculum covering bird behavior, conservation, habitat, migration, and more. The program is currently run in 20 different schools and after-school programs around New York state.

“For our students, they have very little exposure to nature, they don’t leave their street,” says Meg Lyons, a second-grade teacher at Public School 33 in New York City. “Birds are really the one animal you can really study closely in an urban environment.”

At St. Stans, the Prospect Park trip is the culmination of a 16-week bird curriculum spanning the school year. Every For the Birds! program culminates in a field trip to a park or wildlife center—but rarely do those outings include sketching with a bona fide bird celebrity.

To birders, David Sibley needs no introduction as perhaps the most famous living ornithologist. He has been drawing birds for about 50 years, or since he was seven years old, and is now the author and illustrator of 12 nature books, including a comprehensive guide to North American birds. Despite his status in the bird world and busy schedule, the pro birder is known to lead the occasional free bird walk or give drawing lessons to adults and children. In person, he is soft spoken and thoughtful with his words, a little shy but happy to share his encyclopedic bird knowledge. He wears simple wire-frame glasses and walks through the park with his head cocked slightly, looking and listening. 

All this makes Sibley a fitting guest today. Having the children draw birds and journal their reflections on what they’ve drawn is a cornerstone of the For the Birds! curriculum in every school and at every grade level. “I think they like doing it first hand,” says Christine Ippolito, a second-grade teacher at St. Stans who attended the field trip on April 17. In Lyons’ school, she’s noticed that drawing offers an entry point for English language learners or special-needs students. It’s also a place where less academically inclined students have a chance to shine.

In their journals, students from St. Stans follow along as Sibley teaches them how to draw a Northern Cardinal. He starts with an oval for a body, circle for a head, and triangles for the crest and beak. As Sibley draws and talks the kids through his process, a perfect cardinal emerges from the shapes on the easel. When they finish, the students excitedly hold up their drawings to show Sibley. Many are impressively good (and significantly better than the sad attempt by this reporter). One girl has used a pink highlighter to color her cardinal neon. 

“Their focus is not like that on me, they were glued to his every word,” Ippolito says.

After drawing, the children go outside for their own bird walk, Sibley hanging in the back with a group of lucky second graders. As the students giggle at a snorting Mute Swan, Sibley gently points out the water droplets on the bird’s waterproof neck feathers. He helps a little girl find a Palm Warbler with her binoculars. And the students get excited when he points out a bright red male cardinal, like the one they just drew. 

Later, after Sibley has taught the fifth-grade students how to draw an American Robin, an Audubon staff member asks him if he has any advice for drawing birds. He says drawing and experimenting with drawing is key, as is spending time watching and closely studying birds and their movement and behavior.

But Sibley also encourages the kids to draw whatever really interests them, whether it's birds or horses or anything else. “Drawing is just a big part of learning and understanding,” he says before dryly adding, "and if what you really love to draw is dinosaurs, I can't help you."