Charles Sibley

Charles Gald Sibley (August 7, 1917 – April 12, 1998) was an American ornithologist and molecular biologist. He had an immense influence on the scientific classification of birds, and the work that Sibley initiated has substantially altered our understanding of the evolutionary history of modern birds.

Sibley's taxonomy has been a major influence on the sequences adopted by ornithological organizations, especially the American Ornithologists' Union.

Charles Sibley is of no known family relation to renowned bird artist David Sibley.

Life and work

Educated in California (A.B. 1940; Ph.D. 1948 in Zoology, University of California, Berkeley. Minor fields: Paleontology, Botany), he did his first fieldwork in Mexico in 1939 and 1941, then in Solomon Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, New Guinea, and the Philippines during World War II while on leave from the U.S. Navy, in which he was Ensign to Lieutenant in the Communications and Medical Service Corps. He was based for much of the war at Emirau Island, in what is now New Ireland Province of Papua New Guinea. His first job after college was from 1948 to 1949 as Instructor in Zoology and Curator of Birds, University of Kansas, followed from 1949 to 1953 as Assistant Professor of Zoology, San Jose State College, California. From 1953 to 1965 he was Associate Professor then Professor of Zoology and director of the ornithological laboratory at Cornell. Between 1965 and 1986 he was Professor of Biology and William Robertson Coe Prof. of Ornithology, Dept of Biology; and Curator of Birds at the Peabody Museum at Yale. From 1986 to 1992 he was Dean's Professor of Science and Professor of Biology at San Francisco State University, and from 1993 until his death he was Adjunct Professor of Biology at Sonoma State University.

Sibley developed an interest in hybridisation and its implications for evolution and taxonomy and, in the early 1960s he began to focus on molecular studies: of blood proteins, and then the electrophoresis of egg-white proteins.

By the early 1970s Sibley was pioneering DNA-DNA hybridisation studies, with the aim of discovering, once and for all, the true relationships between the modern orders of birds. These were highly controversial to begin with, and regarded by colleagues as anything from snake-oil salesmanship on the one hand to Holy Writ on the other.[1] With the passage of time and ever-improving laboratory methods, the balance of scientific opinion has shifted closer to the latter interpretation, though the picture is by no means clear-cut and simple. Some of Sibley's results – such as the close relationship of galliform birds and waterfowl and their distinctness from other neognaths – have been verified. Other results such as the inclusion of diverse groups into the Ciconiiformes have turned out to be very much in error.

Sibley became estranged from his American co-workers for a time and corresponded with overseas colleagues extensively. But by the mid to late 1980s, Sibley's ongoing work had reversed the trend. His revised phylogeny of living birds in the light of DNA analysis, published in various forms in 1986–1993 was both controversial and highly influential.

In 1986 he was elected a Member, National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A. In 1988 Sibley and Jon Ahlquist were awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.[2] He was elected President of the International Ornithological Congress in 1990. His landmark publications, Phylogeny and Classification of Birds (written with Ahlquist) and Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World (with Burt Monroe) are among the most-cited of all ornithological works, the former setting out the influential Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy.

Acid tongue

During the 1970s, Sibley was a highly controversial figure in ornithological circles, for both professional and personal reasons. His friend Richard Schodde, writing Sibley's obituary in Emu, commented that he was:

... 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.[3]

Partly due to personality conflicts, Sibley had few long-term collaborations with other scientists, with the notable exception of Jon Ahlquist. However, he was effective in persuading others to provide him with the blood, tissue, and egg white samples which were the key to his work.[1]

Other ornithological Sibleys

Charles Gald Sibley is of no known family relation to renowned bird artist David Sibley, although the families knew each other: one of Charles' daughters babysat David, and David's father Fred worked for Charles at Yale.

There is some family resemblance, and Charles did a fair amount of genealogical research but could only establish that any relationship was no closer than fourth cousin.

See also


  1. ^ a b Ahlquist, Jon E. (1999). "Charles G. Sibley: A commentary on 30 years of collaboration". The Auk. 116 (3): 856–860. doi:10.2307/4089352. JSTOR 4089352.
  2. ^ "Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on December 29, 2010. Retrieved 15 February 2011.
  3. ^ Schodde, Richard (2000). "Obituary: Charles G. Sibley, 1911–1998". Emu. 100 (1): 75–76. doi:10.1071/MU00903.

Further reading

American Ornithological Society

The American Ornithological Society (AOS) is an ornithological organization based in the United States. The society was formed in October 2016 by the merger of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) and the Cooper Ornithological Society. Its members are primarily professional ornithologists although membership is open to anyone with an interest in birds. The AOS is a member of the Ornithological Council and Ornithological Societies of North America (OSNA). The society publishes the two scholarly journals The Auk and The Condor as well as the AOS Checklist of North American Birds.

In 2013, the American Ornithologists' Union announced a close partnership with the Cooper Ornithological Society, including joint meetings, a centralized publishing office, and a refocusing of their respective journals to increase efficiency of research. In October 2016 the AOU announced that it was ceasing to operate as an independent union; it was merging with the Cooper Ornithological Society to create the American Ornithological Society.

Black-fronted tern

The black-fronted tern (Chlidonias albostriatus) also known as sea martin, ploughboy, inland tern, riverbed tern or tarapiroe, is a small tern generally found in or near bodies of fresh water in New Zealand and forages for freshwater fish, arthropods and worms. It has a predominantly grey plumage. Restricted to breeding in the eastern regions of South Island, it is declining and threatened by introduced mammals and birds.

Brewster Medal

The William Brewster Memorial Award, usually referred to as the Brewster Medal, is awarded by the American Ornithologists' Union and is named for ornithologist William Brewster. It is given to an author, or coauthors who are not previous recipients, of an exceptional body of work on Western Hemisphere birds. The award comprises a medal and an honorarium provided through the William Brewster Memorial Fund. Established in 1919, the award was first given in 1921, to Robert Ridgway. From 1921 to 1937, it was given biennially; since then it has usually been made annually.

Burt Monroe

Burt Leavelle Monroe, Jr (25 August 1930 – 14 May 1994, Louisville, Kentucky) was an American ornithologist, a member of the American Ornithologists' Union beginning in 1953, who served as the Union's Director of the Commission of classification and nomenclature (1981-1994) and as its president from 1990 to 1992.


Currawongs are three species of medium-sized passerine birds belonging to the genus Strepera in the family Artamidae native to Australasia. These are the grey currawong (Strepera versicolor), pied currawong (S. graculina), and black currawong (S. fuliginosa). The common name comes from the call of the familiar pied currawong of eastern Australia and is onomatopoeic. They were formerly known as crow-shrikes or bell-magpies. Despite their resemblance to crows and ravens, they are only distantly related to the corvidae, instead belonging to an Afro-Asian radiation of birds of superfamily Malaconotoidea.

The true currawongs are a little larger than the Australian magpie, smaller than the ravens (except possibly the little raven, which is only slightly larger on average), but broadly similar in appearance. They are easily distinguished by their yellow eyes, in contrast to the red eyes of a magpie and white eyes of Australian crows and ravens. Currawongs are also characterised by the hooked tips of their long, sharply pointed beaks.

They are not as terrestrial as the magpie and have shorter legs. They are omnivorous, foraging in foliage, on tree trunks and limbs, and on the ground, taking insects and larvae (often dug out from under the bark of trees), fruit, and the nestlings of other birds. They are distinguishable from magpies and crows by their comical flight style in amongst foliage, appearing to almost fall about from branch to branch as if they were inept flyers.

David Allen Sibley

David Allen Sibley (born 22 October 1961, in Plattsburgh, New York) is an American ornithologist. He is the author and illustrator of The Sibley Guide to Birds, which rival Roger Tory Peterson's as the most comprehensive guides for North American ornithological field identification.


Flamingos or flamingoes are a type of wading bird in the family Phoenicopteridae, the only bird family in the order Phoenicopteriformes. Four flamingo species are distributed throughout the Americas, including the Caribbean, and two species are native to Africa, Asia, and Europe.

History of molecular evolution

The history of molecular evolution starts in the early 20th century with "comparative biochemistry", but the field of molecular evolution came into its own in the 1960s and 1970s, following the rise of molecular biology. The advent of protein sequencing allowed molecular biologists to create phylogenies based on sequence comparison, and to use the differences between homologous sequences as a molecular clock to estimate the time since the last common ancestor. In the late 1960s, the neutral theory of molecular evolution provided a theoretical basis for the molecular clock, though both the clock and the neutral theory were controversial, since most evolutionary biologists held strongly to panselectionism, with natural selection as the only important cause of evolutionary change. After the 1970s, nucleic acid sequencing allowed molecular evolution to reach beyond proteins to highly conserved ribosomal RNA sequences, the foundation of a reconceptualization of the early history of life.

James L. Peters

James Lee Peters (August 13, 1889 – April 19, 1952) was an American ornithologist.

Jon E. Ahlquist

Jon Edward Ahlquist (born 1944) is an American molecular biologist and ornithologist who has specialized in molecular phylogenetics. He has collaborated extensively with Charles Sibley, primarily at Yale University.

By 1987, both Ahlquist and Sibley had left Yale.

In 1988, Ahlquist and Sibley were awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal by the National Academy of Sciences. In January 1991 (often listed as 1990), Charles Sibley and Ahlquist published Phylogeny and Classification of Birds, which presented a new phylogeny for birds based on DNA-DNA hybridisation techniques, known as the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy.

At that time, he was an associate professor of zoology at Ohio University. In 1999, Ahlquist was retired.Ahlquist is now a Young Earth Creationist.


Laridae is a family of seabirds in the order Charadriiformes that includes the gulls, terns and skimmers. It includes around 100 species arranged into 22 genera. They are an adaptable group of mostly aerial birds found worldwide.

List of birding books

The literature relating to birding is vast; however, certain books or series are regarded by the birding community as key milestones, setting standards of quality and influencing the development of birding literature, or birding itself. These works and their impact are dealt with on this page, in chronological order of publication. More information on each of the individual works can be found on their individual pages.

Bird Neighbors (1897) by Neltje Blanchan was an early birding book which sold over 250,000 copies. It was illustrated with color photographs of stuffed birds.

The Field Guide to the Birds by Roger Tory Peterson is regarded as the key birding book of the 20th century, due to its impact on the development and popularisation of birding.

Atlas of Breeding Birds of the West Midlands, produced in 1970 by the West Midland Bird Club; the first modern bird atlas.

The Birds of the Western Palearctic is a comprehensive regional avifauna for the Western Palearctic. It consists of 9 volumes, the first published in 1977 and the ninth in 1996. Its format and breadth influenced the development of regional avifaunas for other parts of the world, notably The Birds of Africa.

The Helm Identification Guides are a series, originally produced by Christopher Helm, covering the identification of groups of birds at a worldwide scale. The first volume produced was Seabirds by Peter Harrison, published in 1983.

The Macmillan Field Guides to Bird Identification are two small field guides. They adopt an unusual format, in that not all species in the geographical area of coverage are included; instead only groups of species which the authors regarded as difficult to identify are covered. Each such group is given a chapter, where identification is covered discursively rather than in the abbreviated form more usually used in a field guide. The publication of the first volume (covering Britain and Ireland) was the first time that this approach had been used in a European guide; the book undoubtedly had a major influence on improving the identification skills of birders in Britain during the 1990s.

The publication of Charles Sibley & Jon Ahlquist's Phylogeny and Classification of Birds in 1990 brought a debate about the higher-level systematics of modern birds to the consciousness of birders. Sibley and Ahlquist proposed a radically different phylogenetic tree for birds, based on the results of DNA-DNA hybridisation studies. More details can be found in the article Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy.

Handbook of the Birds of the World is the first work to describe and illustrate all of the world's birds. It is currently in production.

The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley was published in 2000, and was widely regarded as setting a new standard for field guides in North America.

The Collins Bird Guide by Peter J. Grant and Lars Svensson was first published in 2000, and was received extremely warmly by birders. It deals with the birds of the bulk of the Western Palearctic.

The Big Year by Mark Obmascik (audio spoken by Oliver Wyman) is a fascinating narration of a birding contest lasting one whole year.


Meliphagoidea is a superfamily of passerine birds. They contain a vast diversity of small to mid-sized songbirds widespread in the Austropacific region. The Australian Continent has the largest richness in genera and species.

Old World flycatcher

The Old World flycatchers are a large family, the Muscicapidae, of small passerine birds mostly restricted to the Old World (Europe, Africa and Asia). These are mainly small arboreal insectivores, many of which, as the name implies, take their prey on the wing. The family includes 324 species and is divided into 51 genera.

Paul Johnsgard

Paul Austin Johnsgard (born 28 June 1931) is an ornithologist, artist and emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska. His works include nearly fifty books including several monographs, principally about the waterfowl and cranes. Born in Fargo, North Dakota, he was introduced to the study of birds by a distant cousin who was a game warden. He spent these early years taking part in duck counts. After high school and junior college at Wahpeton, he enrolled at North Dakota State University to major in zoology. He then moved to Washington State University for his master's degree, encouraged by a professor who suggested that he could have a career in ornithology. His master's study was on the impact of the construction of O'Sullivan Dam to wetland habitats. Apart from the data collected and his interpretation, it included his pen sketches. This was published in The Condor and the article attracted the attention of Charles Sibley who invited him to consider a Ph.D. at Cornell University with him. His Ph.D. work was on the phylogeny of six ducks, after which he moved to England at the Wildfowl Trust at Gloucestershire founded by Sir Peter Scott. After the course of two years, he produced his first book, the Handbook of Waterfowl Behaviour published by Cornell University in 1965. He is considered one of the most prolific authors of ornithology books.

Sibley-Monroe checklist 1

The Sibley-Monroe checklist was a study of birds conducted by Charles Sibley and Burt Monroe. It drew on extensive DNA-DNA hybridisation studies to reassess the relationships between modern birds.

The Sibley-Monroe assignment of individual species to families, and of families to orders remains controversial however. Critics maintain that while it marks a great leap forward so far as the evidence from DNA-DNA hybridisation goes, it pays insufficient attention to other forms of evidence, both molecular and on a larger scale. There is no true consensus, but the broad middle-ground position is that the Sibley-Monroe classification, overall, is "about 80% correct". Research and debate concerning bird classification continue.

There are 9,994 species on the checklist, which is begun below and continues in several parts.

Sibley (surname)

Sibley is an English surname. Notable people with the surname include:

Andrew Sibley (1933-2015), Australian artist

Alexander H. Sibley (1817–1878), Canadian businessman

Antoinette Sibley (born 1939), English ballerina

Brian Sibley (born 1949), British writer and broadcaster

Celestine Sibley (1914–1999), American author

Charles Sibley (1917–1998), American ornithologist and molecular biologist

Cyril William Sibley (1923–1945), British airman (RAF), murdered by a German Nazi

David Allen Sibley (born 1962), American ornithologist and author

David Sibley (politician) (born 1948), Texas politician and lobbyist

Dominic Sibley, (born 1993), English cricketer

Frank Sibley (philosopher) (1923–1996), British analytic philosopher and aesthetician

George Champlin Sibley, American explorer, soldier, Indian agent

Henry Hastings Sibley (1811–1891), first Governor of Minnesota

Henry Hopkins Sibley (1816–1886), Confederate general

Hiram Sibley (1807–1888), American entrepreneur

Irena Sibley (1944–2009), artist, children's book author and illustrator

John Langdon Sibley {1804-1885} Librarian and Historian Harvard University

Marilyn McAdams Sibley (1921–2006), American historian

Mulford Q. Sibley (1912–1989), American political scientist

Solomon Sibley (1769–1846), Delegate to Congress and Supreme Court Justice for Michigan Territory

Sibley–Ahlquist taxonomy of birds

The Sibley–Ahlquist taxonomy is a bird taxonomy proposed by Charles Sibley and Jon E. Ahlquist. It is based on DNA–DNA hybridization studies conducted in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.DNA–DNA hybridization is among a class of comparative techniques in molecular biology that produce distance data (versus character data) and that can be analyzed to produce phylogenetic reconstructions only using phenetic tree-building algorithms. In DNA–DNA hybridization, the percent similarity of DNA between two species is estimated by the reduction in hydrogen bonding between nucleotides of imperfectly complemented heteroduplex DNA (i.e., double stranded DNAs that are experimentally produced from single strands of two different species), compared with perfectly matched homoduplex DNA (both strands of DNA from the same species).

This revolutionary reordering was initially widely accepted by North American ornithologists, and the American Ornithologists' Union adopted some of its provisions. In other parts of the world its adoption has been more deliberative: it has been a major influence on existing classification schemes but hardly any authority adopted it in its entirety.

Whistling duck

The whistling ducks or tree ducks are a subfamily, Dendrocygninae, of the duck, goose and swan family of birds, Anatidae. They are not true ducks. In other taxonomic schemes, they are considered a separate family, Dendrocygnidae. Some taxonomists list only one genus, Dendrocygna, which contains eight living species, and one undescribed extinct species from Aitutaki of the Cook Islands, but other taxonomists also list the white-backed duck (Thalassornis leuconotus) under the subfamily.


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