Put a Bird on It!


Audubon, Prothonotary Warbler

A few years ago, the cult comedy TV show, Portlandia, featured a skit in which two enthusiastic characters encourage makers of arts and crafts to “put a bird on it!” This was a spoof on the trend for seemingly everything available on Etsy and other similar websites to be decorated with a bird motif.  Regardless of trends in popular fashions, birds have been featured prominently in art since antiquity.  But one name always stands tallest when talking about bird painters:  John James Audubon.

Audubon was born 230 years ago in what is now Haiti to a wealthy sugar planter.  In 1803, he emigrated to the young United States with a passion for birds and painting already firmly established.   He made it his life’s goal to document as many of the birds of the New World as possible, ultimately publishing his magnum opus, The Birds of America, beginning in 1827.

Like all ornithological artists of his era, Audubon painted from recently shot, dead birds.  Photography was non-existent, and optical equipment was expensive and fragile, so there was no other practical way to study the details of a bird’s plumage and form up-close and in-detail.   However, unlike his contemporaries and predecessors, Audubon strove to paint his subjects as dynamic, living creatures in their natural environments.   He placed his birds in the marshes and woodlands, actively feeding, flying or squabbling with each other.   Most birds are illustrated with plants that characterize their habitat or diet.  Birds of prey are often feeding on a fresh kill.   To present-day eyes, many of his poses look a bit awkward.   For their time, they were revolutionary.

The movement Audubon launched to show birds as vital wild living creatures reached a pinnacle in the art of Louis Agassiz Fuertes from the 1890s through the 1920s.   Fuerte’s attention to the fine detail of plumage and behavior established a standard of excellence that few artists achieve even today.  He spent countless hours observing living birds in the wild and making copious notes and sketches.   His student, George Miksch Sutton, continued his tradition through most of the 20th Century.

The year 1908 marked the birth of the man who would use art to bring birds to everyone:  Roger Tory Peterson.  While still a young painter and naturalist in 1934, he published A Field Guide to the Birds.   This was a simple book, with accurate illustrations of every species of bird likely to be found in eastern North America showing the distinguishing characteristics that could be seen “in the field” on live, wild birds.   Before his time, it was said that birds were watched down the barrel of a shotgun; from then on, they were watched through binoculars.  The field guide concept has been expanded around the world and to just about everything imaginable, from insects to the atmosphere.   Almost single handedly, this modest painter and son of Swedish immigrants changed the way that people study nature.

With the revolution in amateur study of natural history launched by Peterson’s first field guide, there are now millions of people studying birds in the wild and thousands who draw and paint them in realistic styles descended directly from the work of Audubon.  And there is another tool beyond the field guide that has made the realistic representation of living birds vastly easier.

This third revolution in bird art (after Audubon’s dynamic living portrayals and Peterson’s bringing birds home to everyone) has happened in just the last decade or so:  inexpensive high-quality digital photography.  Bird photography is nothing new, but now a camera bought for a few hundred dollars can generate images that would have required thousands of dollars of gear and hundreds of dollars of film just a few years ago.  With our super-zoom point-and-shoot we can tear off hundreds of multi-megapixel, full color images in a matter of minutes showing fine feather detail from a hundred feet away.

The photographic revolution doesn’t just mean that we can all generate pretty photos of birds without taking out a bank loan.  It also means that serious artists can have a huge amount of photo reference material to guide their painting and drawing.  Contemporary artists like Julie Zickefoose and David Allen Sibley will often take a small step back from photorealism to create a more evocative image.   The precise details of every feather can now be captured best with a camera.  But the essence of the bird in the wild sometimes comes out better from the mind and canvas of the artist than from the electronics of the camera.

The tradition begun by Audubon to show birds increasingly as they are and how they live is not the only role which birds play in art, of course.   There is the widespread use of a bird simply as a decoration.  Some of Audubon’s paintings were immediately adapted for wallpaper designs.   Stylized representations of swooping swallows, cooing doves and geese on the wing are widespread.  Not every image of a bird need strive to be a condensation of true life and accurate natural history.  Many are just pretty.

However, for those of us who are students of real birds, there is one particular type of bird art that we find jarring.  This is the “non-bird.” By this I don’t mean a bird that is just a generalized abstract winged thing, or an indistinct silhouette, or a cartoonish caricature.    This is a bird in two or three dimensions that is rendered with a fairly high degree of detail certainly enough that we should be able to tell what kind of bird it is intended to be.  And here is where the problem comes in.

The non-bird has plenty of detail.  But these details don’t line up with any actual bird in the real world.  They are simply a random hodge-podge of colors and patterns.  To most people this would never matter.  But to we who spend a large fraction of our lives looking at real birds? For us, the non-bird might as well be a face with the nose upside down and one eye in the middle of the forehead.  It ruins everything.

So a simple word of advice:  If you have a piece of handiwork that you want to decorate with an avian motif, please pull out a bird book and put a REAL bird on it!

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