Make your own free website on

Charles G Sibley 1917-1998

Picture courtesy of Thayer's Birding Software

    In his hometown Santa Rosa, California, USA, Charles G. Sibley died last Easter Sunday, 12 April 1998 at the age of 80. His work has always been among the resources for taxonomy and nomenclature listed on the inside cover of this journal. With his passing, the birding community may have lost one of the leading ornithologists of this century, but we can hold on to the inspiration he gave us, well into the next one. Those who worked with him will undoubtedly agree that however small it in reality was, he always made us feel as if we contributed something important to the 'greater good of modern ornithology'. It goes beyond the limits of this text to mention all his achievements, but I like to point out a few of the highlights.
    Charles Sibley was born August 7, 1917, in Fresno, California. At a about 5 or 6, young Charles became interested in birds, watched and asked questions. Read Seton and Burroughs at 7, and knew he wanted to be a "naturalist", encouraged by a good teacher in High School and an older friend who knew the birds. He later majored in Zoology at the University of California in Berkeley. His first field trips with a professor brought him to Mexico in 1939 and 1941, and he made many more during his university years (1949-1986) to many countries around the world. He became a naval communications officer in World War II - including 19 months in the Southwest Pacific and the Philippines, where he took his shotgun and collected hundreds of specimens.
    In the late 1950s he started to use paper electrophoresis, and began to collect egg-white samples from as many species of birds as possible; in 1960, a report on his study of avian egg-white proteins was published in Ibis 102:215-284, 1960. He continued his research, after he moved to Yale University in 1965, and turned to DNA-DNA hybridization in 1972. With Jon Ahlquist, Charles Sibley was one of the pioneers in applying this technique to study taxonomical relationships in birds. He remained involved these studies, in collaboration with Ahlquist and others, until his retirement from Yale in 1986. Their work resulted in remarkable new evidence of evolutionary relationships, and a revised taxonomy of the world's birds, as set out in Phylogeny and Classification of Birds - a study in molecular evolution (New Haven, 1990). During 1984-93, he worked together with the late Burt L. Monroe Jr. on Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World (New Haven, 1990) and it's Supplement (New Haven, 1993), presenting the new classification down to species level. After Monroe died in 1994, Charles Sibley continued to publish revisions to this classification in his computerized book, Birds of the World (of which version 2.0 is reviewed elsewhere in the same issue of Dutch Birding). He was working on an update, and already had a lot of material to add or modify, before he passed away, including most of the recent taxonomic decisions published in Dutch Birding.
    While recognizing that Sibley, Ahlquist and Monroe have published a classification, that probably represents a more correct view of the phylogeny of birds, in a statement at the beginning of several recent publications, the authors still use the traditional classification instead, referring to the Sibley-Ahlquist-Monroe classification as "controversial" (as if the traditional classification is not!), and probably subject to many future changes. This may very well be true, but as Sibley always said: 'Perfection is for the future, but it is our duty to strive for it in the present'. Even if we never achieve the goal, the pursuit is well worth it. Sibley always was on top of taxonomic changes, reviewing or adopting them almost as soon as they were published. All his findings have stimulated and are supported by new field, museum, and laboratory work by scientists allover the world, as well as a significant change in attitude that resulted in a multitude of recent taxonomic decisions.
    I would like to thank Michael Agnes and Steven Gregory for their help with this obituary. Additional information about Charles Sibley's life and achievements can be viewed at  RUUD GROOTENBOER

(Dutch Birding 20 p.97, 1998)