In addition to being beautiful and interesting to watch, birds play a critical role in our world’s ecology, and are vital links to the ecosystem’s vast food chain. Because of this, birds score a chapter of their own in upcoming Volume 2 of our Teaching through the ARTS series of books. Like us, you might want to devote some summertime to getting better acquainted with these important creatures.
Did you know that through the National Audubon Society, volunteers engage in bird “counts” that report on how many birds are spotted from year to year in a particular location? Because our world is so intertwined, bird counts are like an early warning system on the state of the ecosystem. If the bird count drops significantly, it’s an indication that a part of the environment that the birds depend on has been negatively affected.
Probably because of their antics and ever-presence, birds have been a common subject in art for many centuries. Hundreds of years ago, artists were memorializing birds! Here are a couple of examples.
Whistle in the Shape of a Bird, Sawankhalok,Thailand, ca. 1300-1500; Courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Lidded vessel in the form of an Ancient Bird Quig Dynasty, China 1700-1800; Courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art
His seminal book, Birds of America (1827 and 1838), puts John James Audubon in the forefront of wildlife illustration. The book boasts 435 watercolors of North American birds, reproduced from hand-engraved plates. The colors and poses Audubon captures are stunning and, well, so lifelike! Audubon drew the birds life-size, which presented some challenges when it came to large wading birds. (Have you ever noticed how tall they really are?) What he did, as you’ll see in his American Flamingo, was to illustrate the bird with its head down, hunting for food. By changing the pose, he could essentially fold the bird in half, and it would fit on the page. Even so, when the book was printed it was called an “elephant” portfolio because the pages were so large. It might be fun for you to try to create a life-sized bird using paints or even newspaper.
John James Audubon, American Flamingo, 1838. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Birdwatching is growing by leaps and bounds as a recreational activity. People everywhere put birdfeeders in their yards to attract birds and see them at close range without disturbing their natural activities. Every morning when Mary goes for a walk, she listens to the birds. She hears a large variety of calls, so she knows that means there is a diverse bird population in her neighborhood even if she doesn’t see them all. This spring, Susan watched a mother mallard duck and her three ducklings as they grew, and then flew off to a bigger pond. (Isn’t the reflection cool?)
If you are a birdwatcher, please send us some of your photographs and stories about where you saw a particular bird. We’d love to share them at https://www.facebook.com/artsjourneypress. Here are some of our stories.
As a child, Susan was introduced to bird watching. Sitting quietly in the grass during the early morning or the twilight hours, she watched birds finding food and building nests. This hobby became so interesting that on trips, it became important to set aside time for bird watching. On a trip to Masai Mara in Kenya, Susan watched a Tawny Eagle that was quietly sitting in one of the lone trees suddenly take off into flight.
Tawny Eagle, Kenya
Closer to home she saw two Bald Eagles nesting near a lake that had good fishing. They were close enough to her house that she could walk to their nesting site to watch the eagles. One day tiny heads popped up out of the nest, a welcome site because the bald eagle is on the list of threatened species.
Bald Eagles, Florida
When Susan’s husband made a trip to New Zealand, he brought back pictures of the Paradise Shelduck, a water bird is about the size of a small goose. When you’re photographing birds, you have to be very quick but move quietly or the birds fly away. A photograph of a male and female bird (white head) was really special! The birds are not rare, but he wanted the photograph in order to share his experience.
Male and female Shelducks are one of the few species that mate for life. They call back and forth to each other, even when they’re flying. The female has a very high pitched call, sort of an “eek” sound, while the male has a lower-pitched honk.
Susan’s family likes to go to the wildlife preserve when birds are migrating. Family members could never be sure what species of birds these were because they were flying so high that even with binoculars no distinguishing marks could be seen. These large birds flew majestically along the coastline. The field guide said: “A flock of migrating White Pelicans…ride rising air currents to great height, where they soar gracefully in circles.” The guide added that the birds flapped and sailed in unison, and that they wintered in Florida. The description closely matched what we saw, but the birds were brown, not white. We hope to see them again this migrating season and solve the mystery.
After years of singing about the Kookaburra, Mary came face to face with one in Australia! He was friendly, happy to sing his version of the song. The laughing kookaburra is the largest member of the Kingfisher family.
Taking photos or even sketching the birds that you see enhances the experience of bird watching. Matching the chorus of birdcalls to their makers adds to the interest. Listening to orchestral music that features bird sounds adds to the intrigue. You might start your listening with “The Aviary” from Carnival of Animals Suite by French composer, Camille Saint-Saens; and, of course, Sasha, in Peter and the Wolf by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, is an unforgettable bird with an important mission.
Birds surround us and give pleasure while serving an important role in our world’s ecology. We hope that your summer is filled with the sights and sounds of these vertebrates.
Susan and Mary