As artistic styles and attitudes towards nature have evolved, so have works of art that depict birds—from medieval manuscripts featuring imaginary winged creatures to photographs that take a scientist’s eye to a variety of avian species.
But how would a birdwatcher—someone who observes birds in the wild and is intimately familiar with their true personalities and habitats—react to artists’ representations of birds?
To answer that question, we turned to Cindy Hardin, Director of Outdoor Education at the Los Angeles Audubon Society. She took a look at works of art from Getty’s collection and offered a few fascinating insights into how these works of art compare to the real world of birds.
Phoenixes in the Wild
Several ancient mythologies, including Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, and Persian texts, mention this fantastical creature. Legend has it, every few hundred years, the phoenix burns itself into ashes and then rises from those ashes returned to its youthful state. In the Middle Ages, the phoenix usually appeared in bestiaries (a kind of encyclopedia of animals) surrounded by flames. It was a symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Although phoenixes don’t exist, this image did remind Hardin of a real bird: the Common Poorwill.
“During cold weather, the Poorwill is able to put itself in a state of torpor, where it slows down its heart rate and lowers its body temperature,” said Hardin. “The resulting slowing of the metabolism obviates the need for food, so it need not spend precious energy foraging or migrating great distances. It can remain in this state for weeks! With the advent of spring, it ‘comes alive.’ Other birds do this as well, like the Hummingbird, but not for extreme lengths of time, like the Poorwill.”
Advice for Maiden Bird Owners
In The Bird Catchers, young women play with small songbirds in front of the ruins of the Temple of Vesta in Rome. In art, birds often represent purity (at that time, this meant chastity). In this painting, the act of catching birds symbolizes falling in love and capturing a woman’s “pure” heart—considered to be a worthy goal for a young suitor. Europeans also admired these birds for their songs and sometimes kept them as pets.
Hardin said she personally isn’t a proponent of keeping birds as pets but shared a few must-haves for those who want to create the best possible environment for their birds:
“Unless it’s a raptor, never keep just one bird of a certain species. They are flocking creatures, and need company. Get a bigger cage than you ever thought would be adequate—an aviary would be best. Make sure their feed includes food they would actually eat in the wild. Some birds eat live insects, some raw seeds, etc. Know the diet of your bird,” Hardin said. “Offer lots of stimulation—toys, ample perching spaces, etc. And if you have a nesting pair, provide ample nesting material from which they can choose.”
Teachable Moments from Taxidermy
This still life painting embodies luxury: A smorgasbord of fruit and vegetables surround a variety of game, including birds, which were considered delicacies in the 17th century.
Hardin wasn’t disturbed or saddened by the display of deceased birds in van Utrecht’s work—actually, she said they can be fantastic teaching tools.
“Dead birds give the artist the opportunity to closely observe and create scientifically and anatomically correct images of the given species. John James Audubon’s models were almost all deceased!” Hardin said.
Capturing Birds in Flight
A bird in flight was the ideal subject for the newfangled technology of photography and its ability to illustrate movement. Eadweard J. Muybridge’s photographs of “Animal Locomotion” were popular among educated and well-to-do members of the public.
For Hardin, the series highlights how challenging—and influential—accurate representations of birds can be.
“Taking photos of birds can be quite challenging. People will sit for hours in one spot just to get that perfect shot. Considering the primitive level of equipment available at the time, this series is quite remarkable.”
Up Close and Personal with Kittiwakes at Home
This photograph of a group of Kittiwakes (a type of gull) by wildlife photographer Cherry Kearton, represents a shift in the possibilities of nature photography brought on by new lenses and faster shutter speeds that produced sharper images. The new camera equipment allowed Kearton to take fairly sharp images without getting dangerously close to the birds’ nests, found on outcroppings of rocks along cliffs.
Hardin found this photo intriguing, pointing out that after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, people became more interested in learning about the natural world through a science-based lens, rather than a trophy-hunting mentality. Photography helped, and continues to help, make nature more accessible.
Overall, Hardin said these depictions of the physical characteristics of birds are accurate—even the phoenix has the right proportions that would enable flight. The works of art speak to an enduring human fascination with these unique creatures. While artistic styles and attitudes about nature have evolved, some of the qualities we most admire about birds remain: their beautiful songs, their grace, and their unique perspective on the world below.