Sibley

(This column was first published in the May 3, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    This column is about a friendship that was much too short.

    Charles Sibley died last year and I have only now come to terms with that personal loss. Although we met only briefly forty years ago and we corresponded by e-mail only for the last four years before his death, I considered Sibley a close friend. Moreover, I was deeply honored by our friendship.

    Our 1950s meeting was at Cornell where Sibley presented a talk about the relationships among ducks. Most observers notice that female puddle ducks -- black, mallard, gadwall and pintail, for example -- all look alike, only the males differing in colorful plumage. Sibley pointed out that a Caribbean drake that did not compete with other species for females did not exhibit colorful plumage and, in fact, differed from the female not at all. Thus, he claimed, it was interspecific competition that led to the development of those striking plumage differences among our familiar ducks.

    I was deeply impressed by that controversial talk and I was impressed too with Sibley's convincing responses to his critics at that meeting.

    Professor Sibley soon moved from Cornell to Yale where he pioneered studies of bird interrelationships through use of DNA evidence. This completely new approach to avian systematics brought him into further controversy with conservative ornithologists and he was often the subject of personal as well as academic attacks.

    That is where I came in. On the Internet I defended Sibley against one of those personal attacks and a student of Sibley copied and forwarded my message to him. He promptly wrote a long and quite moving response thanking me for my intercession on his behalf. It was clear that Sibley was hurt by the personal attacks but he felt that it was inappropriate to respond to them himself.

    That began our regular correspondence. For those four years I served as a kind of foil for this outstanding ornithologist, a man I rank among the very finest of his profession.

    It was during those very years that Sibley's paradigm began to gain favor, especially as independent research confirmed his findings. The most noticeable result of his work has been a major revision of the relationship hierarchy of bird species, a reordering driven by his genetic evidence.

    An example of the striking changes that have already been accepted was his move of vultures away from hawks to be relocated between storks and swans. (Perhaps today the ugly duckling would grow up to become a vulture instead of a swan.)

    Two other examples will show Sibley's penchant for raising the hackles of his opponents. He wrote: "It's difficult to find 'pure' species, which is evidence for…evolution by natural selection. If all species were neat, sharp, and with no fuzzy edges -- they would be evidence for creation!" And he pointed out that DNA evidence relates man more closely to chimpanzees than it does the red-eyed vireo to the white-eyed vireo.

    My role in our correspondence was mostly one of asking questions which Sibley answered generously. It was clear that he enjoyed doing so and that my inquiries stimulated him. But he also enjoyed sharing with me the confirmations that supported his theories. I am delighted that those supports came to him before he died. Too many fine scientists -- Mendel is a good example -- went to their graves, their enormous contributions not yet recognized.

    Shortly before he died, Sibley sent me a copy of his Birds of North America, which he developed as a computer CD so that it could be easily revised. It is a gift that means a great deal to me but I would far rather have my good friend back. -- Gerry Rising