Birds in the News: Feathered Muses

By Hugh Powell
October 8, 2008
Detail of Golden Eagle painting by John James Audubon Detail from John James Audubon’s Golden Eagle, 1833. Image has been rotated to fit this page.
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The New York Times has a great article and slideshow about birds as the inspiration for artists throughout history. The piece surveys a handful of new books on the subject, kicking off with some colorful details about the big kahuna himself, John James Audubon. (i.e., We learn how Audubon got a Golden Eagle to pose for a portrait. It wasn’t by asking nicely.)

Other artists get a mention, too, from the first human to scratch the outline of an owl onto a cave wall, through Edward Lear (better known for his fanciful poems) to Roger Tory Peterson and David Sibley. But perhaps what comes through more clearly than any one artist is the power birds have to fire our imaginations and compel us to emulate them.

They’d qualify as works of art all by themselves except that they’re not artificial. Birds spring up from forests, prairies, and beaches unbidden, like ladyslippers or snapdragons, straight into our imaginations. From there, it’s just a short flight to the page, the picture frame, and the movie screen.

Like birds themselves, there may be too many bird artists to list all our favorites. John Gwynne has always been one of mine, since my days in Panama looking at Spotted Antbirds and Fiery-billed Aracaris. Other friends at the Lab admire Larry McQueen, Charley Harper, and Ithaca’s own Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

We’ve been lucky to have excellent artists visit us as illustrators and leave behind lasting works. If you’re a member, you may already have some of Evan Barbour‘s artwork on a notepad stuck to your refrigerator. Pedro Fernandes, a recent intern from Portugal, drew a poster full of jays and crows for our Citizen Science programs (some of the images are here), and if you ask me he got their expressions and attitudes just right.

If you enjoy Audubon, you simply must check out a new website at the University of Pittsburgh. The site lets you look at all of the plates from his five-volume Birds of America (more than 400 plates). You can zoom in for incredible resolution (as with the eagle’s head, above) so that you can appreciate Audubon’s attention to even the tiniest feather barbs.

Audubon was so prolific that he’s a little like Mozart: a treasure who is perhaps too well-known to be your favorite. I’m wondering who else I’ve missed. Who is your favorite bird artist?


  • Lilly Fowler


    I’m a journalist living in Los Angeles looking for a compelling story that involves a bird. This can be any kind of bird. The bird just needs to play a major role, and the story needs to be interesting. If you have any suggestions, please e-mail me at The story would be for a radio documentary show.

    Thank You!

  • Robinsegg

    Great article, Hugh. I especially enjoyed the Times links more more so, the work of Pedro Fernandes. It was interesting to see the resoures he used in developing his images, especially the library of preserved specimens. It also reminded me as a novice birder, that there are important resources to use for identification apart from camera and field guide. When I took my first “birding” trip to Mexico a few months ago I brought along a well-known field guide for the area. Problem was it really didn’t work very well in the field and I usually left it back in the hotel. The forced me to use the power of observation(imagine that) and take copious notes, something I had not done before. Of course, once I returned to the hotel I used the field guide, and when I returned home I furthered my research using internet resources. Thanks again, and keep the good stuff coming!

  • Hugh

    Hey, thanks for the support, robinsegg. You’re right – not having a field guide is one of the best ways to sharpen your powers of observation. Often when I go to new places I try to sketch the new birds I see before I look them up. When people look over my shoulder they can’t help but laugh – the sketches aren’t much better than stick figures. But at least it gets me to really look at the bird.