Sunday, February 22, 2009


"A Bird Tapestry" by David S. Rubin serves as an indexical overview of how artists have depicted birds over the years, beginning with rough drawings created by shamans in caves for ritualistic hunting purposes which progressed into highly-detailed scientific 'specimen' drawings and paintings by naturalists like Audubon to the present day where artists deal with more ecological concerns in relation to birds. While Rubin is more descriptive of each artist's work rather than critical, the article did lay a framework for helping me understand the human relationship to birds and how this comes across in the images we produce of them.

These categories intersect with last week's article regarding biophilia and the general ways humans interact with nature. Throughout history we have appreciated birds for aesthetic, naturalistic and spiritual reasons. The earliest humans may have depended on birds for sustenance but they also looked to them as their gods, like the Egyptian god Horus who had the head of a hawk and the body of a man. Greek myths also tell of the coupling of humans with gods disguised as birds, like Leda and the swan (who was Zeus in disguise.) Birds have also figured heavily in Christian mythology, particularly a pristine white dove that symbolizes the holy spirit. This connection between birds and religion and the human spirit seems obvious, since birds have the ability to fly, they are creatures of the air and sky and are thus closer to the heavens, where god(s) are thought to reside. Like marine creatures who tend to have fins and gills and the ability to survive underwater, we are fascinated with birds because they possess what we don't have-- namely wings, and with that the ability to explore a frontier that until modern times we could only dream of.

When I was 10 years old I experienced this intersection of birds as an art form and as a source of spiritual inspiration-- at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu there is an extensive collection of ceremonial headdresses and capes made completely out of the feathers of native birds. Hundreds of feathers went into the making of these intricate items; the amount of feathers and the type of birds from which they came indicated rank and status. This was a highly specialized and intricate craft and only royalty and religious leaders wore the prized pieces.

Above is a feathered helmet typical of the kind worn by Hawaiian royalty into battle. The item pictured below is called a "ahuula cape" and is made from the feathers of the yellow oo, mamo and red iiwi birds. Royal Prince Kiwalao owned and wore the cape in the 1760s. The same type of feathers make up the second cape, the longer length suggests it was for ceremonial parade use rather than for battle.
The way the Hawaiians understood birds was similar to the way both the ancient shamans and we today appreciate them-- while it is now more culturally taboo to use the feathers of rare birds for ornamentation, we still hold the plumage of particular birds in high esteem, especially that of the peacock.

A more contemporary example of our relationship to birds is the ongoing saga of a pair of red-tailed hawks named Pale Male and Lola, who gained worldwide recognition when they built their 8-foot-wide nest on the ornate ledge of a posh apartment building on Fifth Avenue across from Central Park in NYC. The birds peacefully co-existed with the building's illustrious residents like Mary Tyler Moore and Paula Zahn for seven years until the administration evicted the hawks in 2004, citing the hawks as a nuisance and a potential hazard.

Protestors lined the streets outside the apartment as a battle ensued over the hawk pair-- was the building obligated to recreate the nest and to house the hawks and their brood? Legally they were not but the public outrage led to the rebuilding of the nest and a media fixation on the 'love life' of Pale Male and Lola-- would they be able to successfully hatch and raise chicks in a manmade nest?

The story of Pale Male and Lola was immortalized by a PBS documentary and at least three illustrated children's books. A Web site dedicated to their cause has been posting photographs of the hawks since 2002 and continues to update with photos on a frequent (sometimes daily) basis.

Why is there a continued fascination with Pale Male and Lola? While they do symbolize freedom and independence (like most wild birds in general), it is their location that is particularly important. Normally red-tailed hawks reside in the wide open spaces of Western states like Montana, not the densely packed urban streets of a metropolitan city of NYC. In a city like New York, where Central Park, the most accessible and biggest natural element, is manmade, there is a biophilic longing for the wild. New Yorkers only see pigeons, ducks and sparrows on a daily basis-- while technically wild they have become integrated into our daily lives to the point of depending upon our refuse for survival. Pale Male and Lola allowed city dwellers access to a little piece of the wild but in the relative comfort and safety of the world they know.

I'm intrigued by the hawks because they defy the notion of a formal wilderness and also demonstrate how nature has been able to adapt to a concrete landscape. Additionally, the media sensation around the pair is telling-- New Yorkers overlook the nature they have everyday contact with (ie the aforementioned pigeons) but romantize the hawks because they larger, more wild and thus in the minds of many, more free.

In the tradition of the naturalist 'birders' of the 18th and 19th centuries, who sought out rare varieties of birds in the wild, contemporary bird watchers search out species in their own backyards, even if that backyard is an alley rather than a green space. Cornell University, through their Lab of Ornithology, sponsors a Celebrate Urban Birds project and the Urban Hawks blog actively documents and photographs wild birds that call New York their home. This includes owls, eagles, hawks and herons that live in Central Park, the Bronx and Brooklyn.

(Central Park's wild turkey)

I've examined the story of Pale Male and Lola as an example of the wild living in a constructed/manmade environment; I'm also interested in the reverse, particularly the work of photographer Paula McCartney who places faux craft store birds (the constructed/manmade) in lush natural (wild) environments.

Bird Watching, (Yellow Warbler), 2003

McCartney says of her work:

"I decided to take control, buy my own birds, and create and photograph these idealized scenes that I fantasized about, where songbirds perched patiently on trees as I moved through the woods. By controlling the brightly colored bird’s position in the environment, I am creating a more idyllic scene than that which naturally exists, and creating a new environmental experience for the viewer and myself.

"Rather than only recording what nature has to offer, I have taken control and adorned the trees with their longed for, but absent, tenants."

Bird Watching, (Dark Eyed Junco), 2003

It's significant that she focuses on songbirds, that as a group are smaller and more colorful than predatory birds like hawks and also possess calls (or songs) pleasing to the human ear. Generally songbirds are appreciated for aesthetic reasons, McCartney brings this to a new level by using our idealized version of these birds and then placing them into idyllic natural settings. In the above quote she emphasizes control, she makes it clear that she does not want to observe nature or even interfere with it, instead she constructs her own vision of birds and how they function in our world.


  1. Since so many of us came to McCartney independently, we should probably discuss her work in class. Blog comments aren't really a good mode of discussion. I've never found her work terribly interesting, but all of a sudden it seems to have much more potential than I expected.

  2. Wow, you brought up McCartney too. I posted on Jason's blog before I read yours. I wonder what she means when she says she is creating a new environmental experience for the viewer. Do we experience the environment through photography?

  3. Okay, so about Pale Male and Lola, I definitely appreciated the bird advocates wanting the hawks to stay in NYC, but I totally laughed my ass off at the YouTube clip. The way they would count the thrusts of the male hawk as the bird couple made whoopie on Woody Allen's balcony was a so voyeuristic and creepy and funny all at once. I looked up the word "birding" in Wikipedia (which now that I think about it sounds like a euphemism for sex) and apparently 90% of birders in the U.S. are caucasian, with the majority being male. This makes me think either white men are dorks or the act of birding is closely related to the male gaze in art, possibly even closer to the biological gaze. Or... perhaps birding really is a euphemism for sex and the these men are going out into the woods to meet other "birders."