Bird Biology and the Arts

Artists throughout history have drawn inspiration from the birds. Part-bird, part-human forms have frequently been used to depict either supernatural phenomena or enhanced human abilities, especially those of vision (bird heads) and speed (bird wings). Perhaps the oldest artistic representation of birds or parts of birds is a prehistoric bird-headed man dating from 15,000 to 10,000 B.C. It is painted on one of the walls of the Lascaux Cave in France -- the often-described treasure-house of Stone Age art.

Ancient Egyptians considered birds "winged souls"; they occasionally used them to symbolize particular gods. The symbol for Horus, the god of the sun (and the local god of the Upper Nile), was the head or body of a falcon. In a statue of King Chefren from Giza on his throne (c. 2500 B.C.), the king is not seated alone -- the falcon of Horus is perched behind his head, and its wings enfold the king's shoulders. The bird appears to be watching over the king and his realm. Raptors subsequently have often been used to represent national power -- right down to the national symbol of the United States. (The founding fathers, we would like to think, did not recognize the Bald Eagle's habit of scavenging dead fish and feeding at dumps.) Whereas predatory birds are often used in art to symbolize power, doves (frequent prey to raptors) often depict peace.

Symbolic winged chimeras like Pegasus, the flying horse, are recurrent. The power of the sphinx, indicated by the merging of a human head onto a lion's body, is sometimes augmented by the wings of a bird. If the Great Sphinx had wings, they are long gone, but those of the winged Sphinx of Naxos (500 B.C.) remain resplendent. Both victory and liberty continue to be associated with bird wings. They are, for example, the outstanding feature of the renowned Hellenistic marble sculpture the "Winged Victory" of Samothrace (200 B.C.). That partly airborne goddess, in turn, became the prototype for countless modem political paintings and cartoons.

Goldfinches, which appear commonly in illuminated manuscripts in the Middle Ages, were associated with the Christ child. In southern Italy and Sicily goldfinches were commonly released at the time a figure representing the risen Christ appeared at Easter celebrations. Could the predilection of goldfinches for prickly thistles have recalled the crown of thorns and thus led to their association with Christ? During the Renaissance most paintings were religious and bird-winged angels were common. It would seem that the countless depictions of the Annunciation differ most in the use of wings from different bird species.

Native Americans living on the northwest coast of our continent were consummate bird artists. They used stylized depictions of ravens (which were considered gods and played a central role in their religion), eagles, and oystercatchers, etc., in carved masks and rattles as well as on painted screens, drums, and boxes. While the symbolic use of birds (and parts of their anatomy) is ancient, depictions of bird biology are by no means a modem invention. For instance, a stylized tick bird picking parasites from the back of a bull is painted on a piece of pottery dating to the late Mycenaean, more than a thousand years before Christ, and an early English book contains a picture of an owl being mobbed.

The realistic depiction of birds in nature become increasingly evident in 18th-century Western and Eastern paintings, but illustrating bird biology was not elevated to its current position as an art form until the work of John James Audubon in the early 1800s. Audubon was among the first artists to accurately portray bird biology and certainly the first to consistently paint his subjects with such drama as to establish himself as a significant figure in art history as well. Reproductions of his life-size watercolors were printed in the famous "Double Elephant Folio" of the Birds of America. The outlines were printed from huge engraved copper plates, and the coloring done expertly by hand. The pictures often illustrated aspects of bird biology: varying plumages, nesting, feeding, defending against predators, displaying, and so on. Less than 130 of the 200 original hand-colored sets of 435 plates have survived intact. The value placed on them as works of art can be judged from the prices commanded by the individual plates from sets that have been broken up. At an auction in late 1985 many plates, including the Flamingo, the Trumpeter Swan, the Gyrfalcons, and the Snowy Owls, sold for over $25,000 each. Top dollar, $35,200, was paid for an example of Audubon's portrayal of a group of seven long-gone Carolina Parakeets.

Bird vocalizations, of course, often figure in works of literature, especially poetry, as the words of Milton, Keats, Shelley, and others about the songs of nightingales remind us. The call of the European Cuckoo has been featured in the chorus of at least one lullaby. Perhaps the most widespread transference of themes from the avian world to the world of human art has occurred in the dance. The peoples of the northwestern coast have exceptional raven and oystercatcher dances. The courtship rituals of cranes are mimicked in the dances of African tribes, the Ainu of Japan, Australian Aborigines, and Native Americans. One might even imagine that cranes have, directly or indirectly, influenced ballet in much the same way Peter Tchaikovsky was influenced by swans more than a century ago when he composed Swan Lake.

The symbolic use of birds continues today unabated. For example, many television advertisements feature the Bald Eagle or assorted hawks to suggest patriotism, dependability, speed, or machismo. The "proud" peacock is the symbol of a major network. Film clips of birds flying, feeding, singing, and courting are also frequently used in nature and public affairs programs to indicate the peaceful, primeval conditions that are rapidly disappearing from our planet. Bird art seems to be getting more popular as the birds themselves start to disappear. Modern bird paintings, prints, and sculptures are in much demand, especially as the works of Audubon and other avian "old masters" are unavailable to most. Children raised with the image of an all-knowing "Big Bird" may well see birds differently than their parents, raised with Woody Woodpecker and Daffy Duck, did, but it seems certain that birds and their biology will, in one way or another, remain embedded in the arts and in the human psyche for a long time to come.

SEE: Visual Displays.

Copyright ® 1988 by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye.