Saturday, May 31, 2014

Put a bird on it

This month I had the pleasure of traveling to Powdermill Nature Reserve for an open house. We got a close look at bird banding and a specially-constructed flight tunnel to test out bird-safe window glass. (More photos here!) While talking to one of the staffers and explaining the prevalence of birds in my art, he joked, "Put a bird on it!" I think he instantly regretted the implication that he was trivializing my work by referencing a now-famous skit from the TV show Portlandia, and apologized profusely. Honestly, I thought it was hilarious, and very true. People are compelled by birds (even if they don't actually want them in close proximity), and I use them in my art not just because I like them, but because people seem to connect with them and therefore take an interest in what my pieces are saying. Up until that point, I had never really thought about why people like birds so much, beyond their obvious beauty, so I went digging for the origins of humanity's love of the avian class.

A female Magnolia warbler at Powdermill's bird banding lab. Photo courtesy Maria Mangano

It turns out that humans have been depicting birds in visual culture and using them as metaphors since we've been smearing paint on cold cave walls. Birds are symbols of motherhood and fertility. They are symbols of national identity. Birds are metaphors for the human soul. In classical music their songs are famously imitated - or outright inserted - as a metaphor for hopeful existence in a complex and troubling universe. Most notably, birds appear in myth as go-betweens of the spiritual and the human world, or as gods themselves: Horus and Thoth in Ancient Egypt; Quetzalcoatl in Mesoamerica; Athena in Ancient Greece; in omen-interpreting practices such as augury and haruspex, and in stories as messengers of the gods.

Ancient Geoglyph (earth art) of a hummingbird created by the Nazca people of Peru, ca. 400 - 650 CE.

Looking at the sum of visual culture, birds have been representing every stage and sphere of human life, from infancy to after death, since ancient times. They are probably the only type of animal that is found in every culture's art around the world. So ... we've been putting birds on things for a while and we still do it today. Why?

There are a few obvious reasons that come to mind - firstly, people find birds beautiful. Their colors, motions, voices, behaviors all enchant us. Also, birds exhibit behaviors that people find relatable - courtship, nesting, and raising young, and moreover, some do these things in relative proximity to and comfort with people, compared to more secretive animals. Some birds are smart, social, and even seem to like interacting with us. In a way we're also biologically attuned to noticing birds. Science is telling us more and more about how birds interpret their surroundings, but we know that they process the world primarily with the same senses people use - vision and hearing (as opposed to animals with incredible senses of smell and touch) - and because bird appearance and behavior are adapted to appeal to those senses, we notice them too. Notably, there is one attraction that is definitely aspirational - many birds fly, and that has probably interested even the earliest humans looking to transcend our earthbound existence.

Birds aren't the only type of animal in my work, although over the past few years they've become a greater and greater percentage of my subject matter. Now I tend to seek out bird resources in book stores, head straight for the bird hall at any natural history museum I visit, and derive a lot of inspiration from other artists, old and new, who use birds in their work.

John James Audubon, Gyrfalcon engraving in Birds of America.

One thing I love about birds is, like other natural objects, how much amazing detail is contained in their features when you take the time to look closely. Their bodies have an incredible level of physical complexity, and I find this particularly beautifully illustrated in the structure of feathers, which have such an intense and fractal degree of intricacy. The scale between the tiniest barb of a vulture's flight feather and the grand, dreadful arc of its enormous wing is, to me, a powerful allegory of a microcosm that is somehow more cosmically truthful and animal-centric than the historical idea of the human body as a model of the universe.

The conceptual arc of my work has also shifted to include birds more and more. I like to explore the intersection of nature with human culture, especially in the form of museums and academia, but I try to look for it everywhere. Just like how birds are in every culture's art, I've realized that birds are usually the most common and universal link all people have to wildlife, even those living in very urban settings. People may not be able to identify the tree next to their window, but nearly everyone in the world can recognize and name a few human-friendly bird species. The permanency of that connection, even with the degree of removal most people have from nature, is a way for me to connect with others through my work. Many birds are also indicator species - the health of bird populations can tell us a lot about the general health of an ecological system - so when I make work about extinction or human-influenced changes on the natural world, birds are a useful symbol for those repercussions.

Maria Mangano, Winter wren. Drypoint and engraving.

Ok, ok, Maria, you're saying. You like birds. But they're always dead. What's with the dead? Firstly, please allow me to call out anyone who has ever seen a dead bird and not wanted to take a better look at something they don't usually get to see up close. It's your chance to bridge a little of that people-nature gap. Of course you want to look! I reenact that connection every time I make work, hoping to generate a bit of the same pull on a viewer's soul.

It's not purely morbid fascination, though. Lately, as I've begun to make pieces that are more autobiographical and personal, and less commentary/reactive/purely observational, themes of mortality, memory, and frailty have become a larger part of my work. Perhaps because birds seem fragile or delicate and have traditionally served as messengers from or symbols of the supernatural, using them to explore death, tragedy, and the afterlife in a personal way has proved to be a powerful symbol. A less interesting but still important reason is that animals that aren't moving are much easier to draw - its stationary quality allows me to have a relationship with and investment in a subject that only close observation can give.

Maria Mangano, Sometimes these things just happen. Mixed media on paper.

It would be easy to just say that birds are my "spirit animal" and leave it at that, but their historical precedence as our connection to an existence beyond what we know, and their role in natural history as our constant subjects of study, from Audubon to Darwin's finches to the current problem of window-killed birds, has positioned them at the center of everything my work is about. Until something else comes along that captures my attention and my imagination in the same way, I'll keep putting birds on things.


  1. Thanks for letting know what's behind your work and teaching us about the human-bird connection. The Holy Spirit is depicted as a dove. From an evolution standpoint, perhaps our connection with stems from us looking to them to help find food (circling scavengers), alert us to danger, and help with indicating the change of seasons.

    1. I hadn't even thought about the evolutionary angle, but that's an excellent point. Birds are also good at finding berries and grubs - good sources of food for early humans. And their migrations are certainly an indicator of seasonal change (including climate change). Thank you for adding that to the discussion! The holy spirit is one of the first bird-as-god analogies I thought of too. :]

  2. I liked your discussion of birds as connection to nature in urban environments. Moving to a new continent and trying to connect with totally new bird species has been an interesting experience. Some birds are "universal": India has different crows, but they sound like North American crows. The hard part is trying to find what birds are making all those interesting sounds while they are totally hidden in foliage. (Turns out that between bulbuls and mynas, I can account for almost all the calls I've heard.)

    1. Honestly that idea came 100% from reading your blog posts. I saw they were animals you often noticed, even in really populous areas. And I also saw some PBS or BBC nature special about vultures, hawks, and pigeons in Jodhpur that captured my attention. They seem so comfortable in built environments. It's really fascinating to look at the ways that some birds have completely re-configured themselves to thrive in cities.