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Walking Softly:
Birds As Art

by Jamie Harron

The deep gloom of winter's browns, blacks and whites is upon you. The view from your window brings no cheer until suddenly your sense of dissatisfaction is shattered by the appearance of a storm of pink in the garden. The arrival of a flock of pine grosbeaks has changed the moment and your mood.

Whilst walking, a burst of birdsong breaks your reverie and, turning, you see, glowing on a backlit branch, a scarlet tanager down from the heights of his stand of oaks. His brief pause in his search for food has brought you a moment of beauty, an instant of emotion, and then he is gone.

The idea of birds as art is not a new one but it usually refers to a human construct, something made by the hand of man. This creative piece of work could be a painting, music, carving or photograph. If we take the construct out of the situation, can we still have art? This would make the instant caught by the eye, the moment itself, art. The artist is Mother Nature rather than the hand of man.

Science would argue with such an anthropomorphic viewpoint. They would say that we are simply imposing our own ideas of structure upon the chaos of nature. However, debates between science and art are not new and probably will never be resolved to finality. So the situation remains that it is possible to have two viewpoints of an event. The question is, how do we measure this event, this moment? Let us investigate both voices in the debate.

The Scientifc Viewpoint

There are several positions within the scientific viewpoint indicating that debate exists not just between art and science but also within each discipline. There is creative tension and discussion, as the continuing struggle to discover the truth unfolds. So why, according to science, do birds have bright colours?

First, it is assumed that the coloration of birds is to make them more or less conspicuous. Some cases seem fairly clear, in that they are environmentally determined, such as with snowy owls or the muted browns of desert birds. If you were to turn to the inside front cover of this magazine (oh go on!!) you will see a flight of flamingos. In this case, the birds' diet affects their coloration. If certain crustaceans are removed from their food supply, they begin to turn white. When their diet is rebalanced, then the pink colour returns.

Many birds have two distinct plumages a year. This occurs mostly in the males and is usually brought about by an increase in hormones in the spring.

But why the bright colours in the plumage? There are two arguments that may not be mutually exclusive. At their base is the fact that the colours are an advertisement for both predators and potential mates.

To predators, the brightly coloured males are more easily seen than their dowdier female counterparts, which make the males a more likely target. This increases the female's chances of survival and therefore that of the species. This is particularly so for the many bird species where one male will mate with many females and, therefore, the loss of one male is far less damaging than the loss of a female. It is also argued that the bright colours of the male tell a predator that he will be difficult to catch. This is much like the 'springing' done by members of the antelope family, which tells an attacker that they are healthy and fast. The message to a predator in both cases is that he or she will expend so much energy trying to catch the prey that it will not be worth the trouble.

Another possibility that has been presented is the "taste test." This argument borrows a known condition of the insect world. There, the bright colours on many insects, for example the monarch butterfly, tell a predator that they will not taste very good. It has been suggested that brightly coloured birds will taste bad to predators. (How do you test for that?)

The most likely situation is that the brightly coloured plumage exists as a part of sexual selection. Females will choose the most brightly coloured males because their condition indicates that they are healthy and resistant to disease and parasites. The females "feel" that they will produce the best offspring.

Even in this very brief discussion of the scientific viewpoint, we can see disagreements. So even within science there are still no finalised arguments.

The Artistic Viewpoint

The best place to start is the end. For this, we will not consult science but a poet to discuss the finish before the beginning.

"My name is Osymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye mighty and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

All our creations, even our societies, are doomed to fall away, with our greatest works forgotten and lost in time and by time. Everything ends.

So if our artistic constructs will be destroyed by inexorable time, how do we measure art? We know that art proceeds by external logic, reflecting the society in which it is formed and the values of that society. It also develops by its own internal logic, with the creative contradictions between the artist and society, between artists and even within the artist himself as his work changes with time and viewpoint. We also know that art, a broad church, develops in various mediums such as painting, sculpture, photography, music and so on. So to attain art, the medium is of no consequence. It is merely the vehicle for art.

If Picasso's "Guernica" was captured and destroyed by the Fascists two years after its creation, would it have still been art? Would Michelangelo's "David," falling to its destruction a few weeks after its completion, still have been art? If Van Gogh, in his madness, had destroyed his "Sunflowers" before a horrified friend a couple of hours after the paint had dried, would it still have been art? I take a picture of a hummingbird at 1/20,000th of a second and the editor viewing it drops it, scratching the slide and thus destroying it. Was it still art? I believe the answer to all of the above is, yes! We see that time, leveler of all, cannot be a measure of art. So what is?

It must be agreed that a certain degree of talent concretised in the work is necessary, which is to say it attains an agreed aesthetic level. This must bring out an emotion that was both intended by the artist and is attainable to the viewer. So both time and medium are unnecessary to art. But what there must be is the "other," the viewer. It is the other who experiences and recognises the aesthetic and emotional impact that says that art has been created.

Now mankind's relationship to nature is a classic subject/object formation. We are both part of nature, which is the object, and because of our self-consciousness, we are the subject, separate from her. We are the "other" to Mother Nature. Within the singularity that is nature, we are both united and divided. There can be no other "other" other than us. As seen above, it requires a viewer to evaluate a construct to decide if it is art, a subjective experience of an objective event. In the world there is no "viewer" but man.

So we should finish at the beginning. If a male bird, resplendent in his bright colours, lands on a branch near us, and we find that the light and shadow, foreground and background, the placement of the bird in the scene brings to us the emotional and aesthetic values that tell us that art has been attained, than is that event not art? Is Mother Nature not the artist and we as the "other," the judge of that event?

The bird is art!

What is this? Objections do I hear? Don't accept my premises? Well then, my construct falls to the dust, to lie on the barren sands. However, it does not matter, for the bird remains as beautiful, with or without words. Can't you see it?

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 40, Summer/Autumn 2002. Copyright Jamie Harron.



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