Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Birds in Art: a Little History

Every fall, I try to make a trip to Wausau, Wisconsin, to visit the "Birds in Art" exhibit at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. This extraordinary, juried exhibit was inaugurated in 1976, the year the museum opened, and has continued every year since. When I can't make it to the exhibit, I at least purchase that year's catalog. 

I discovered Birds in Art in the mid-90s, and since then have also acquired every catalog going back to 1989.  

Birds have been on the planet longer than humans, an inescapable part of our environment from earliest times. 

Grandma showing Walter a chickadee

My two-year-old grandson notices birds on our walks even when I don’t point them out, and without binoculars or me helping, Walter can accurately distinguish and name owls, chickadees, Blue Jays, crows, ducks, and woodpeckers. Small wonder that modern English words for wild birds such as hawk, owl, raven, swallow, and sparrow; for domesticated birds such as cock and fowl; and the word bird itself were all in use before the 12th Century. Birds feature in the Bible and the Quran, and in the tales, songs, literature, and artwork of essentially every human culture.  

The earliest known cave art includes drawings of birds. An owl depiction on the walls of the Chauvet cave in southern France is believed to be 30,000 years old. Many books and articles call it a Snowy Owl and use that as evidence that during glaciation, snowies were common, or at least noticeable, in France. Before I’d seen photos of that drawing, I reported that misinformation myself. But the cave drawing clearly depicts the owl having feather tufts, making it a much more likely tiny European Scops-Owl, medium-sized Long-eared Owl, or very large Eurasian Eagle-Owl—the three owl species with tufts that would be seen in France then or now.  

Long-eared Owl
This Long-eared Owl is the only owl I've ever photographed in Europe, not in France but in Austria. 

When I started birding, the first bird art I became aware of included what I saw in my field guides and basic bird books, and old standards—Audubon, Peterson, and Arthur Singer—doing beautiful work showing beautiful birds at their best. When I take photos, that’s what I aspire to—capturing each bird doing what it does as beautifully as I can. My favorite photos, like most of the bird art I display in my home, are straightforward depictions as true to the bird’s life in nature as possible.  

Much of the bird art I saw displayed at gift and art shops in the ‘70s were fairly expensive prints in a narrow genre: beautiful portrayals of waterfowl, often a string of ducks or geese flying into a marsh in autumn. They either included a clear representation of a hunter and dog lying in wait or implied their presence. Along with these were beautiful prints of a retriever or spaniel holding a dead duck.   

American duck hunters have been specifically associated with bird art since 1934, when President Roosevelt signed into law the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, requiring every hunter to purchase a Federal Duck Stamp to legally hunt waterfowl. The first Duck Stamp was illustrated by famous cartoonist and conservationist Jay “Ding” Darling. In 1949, the first contest to select that year’s Duck Stamp artwork was held. Now that contest has evolved into a major event, and the superb artwork is part of the reason Duck Stamps are collectors’ items. Many hunters purchase more than one because they must keep a signed one on their person while hunting but want a pristine one for their collection. The Duck Stamp Act ensured that 98 cents of every dollar spent on a Duck Stamp goes directly to protecting habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge system, so a great many of us birders and other people who care about wildlife purchase a Duck Stamp every year regardless of their collectability.   

Bird art is more than depictions of game birds and other species in nature—it spans the gamut of how we human beings visually interpret those birds in our world. In tomorrow's blog post, you can read about how the Woodson Art Museum’s annual "Birds in Art" exhibit beautifully celebrates the traditional, straightforward depictions of birds in natural settings doing natural things while also widening the concept of birds in art in always wonderful and surprising ways.