Book Review: On Rare Birds, by Anita Albus
Reviewed by Stephen J. Bodio
January 15, 2012
This is an unusual book; beautiful and rather strange, Rare Birds is a series of essays on extinct and rare birds by a German artist. Other than their subtle beauty and the fact that most are in some sort of trouble, there is little common thread. Each chapter is a well-documented history of tragedies, blunders, and mishaps that might be comic but for the heartbreak—Spix’s Macaw and the Crested Ibis (“Waldrapp”) are examples of the last. The selection is a little mysterious, starting with the lost Passenger Pigeon and shading through to nonendangered birds—hawk owl; kingfisher—that I suspect she likes artistically.
She is a remarkable artist; her rather formal style seems to range from the Renaissance— in still lifes and landscapes with kingfishers—to about the 18th century. Although all of the abundant art in the book is excellent, I wish she had included more than 13 of her own paintings. The book concludes with a slightly mystical afterword inveighing against biological determinism, with a good parrot tale appended. There is some lovely language even in translation: “There is no owl that does not have a veil.”
All in all, this was the weirdest bird book of the quarter, but a keeper.