Humans, Nature, and Birds: Science Art from Cave Walls to Computer Screens

Humans, Nature, and Birds: Science Art from Cave Walls to Computer Screens

by Darryl Wheye, Donald Kennedy

This book invites readers to enter a two-floor virtual “gallery” where 60-plus images of birds reflecting the accomplishments of human pictorial history are on display. These are works in a genre the authors term Science Art—that is, art that says something about the natural world and how it works. Darryl Wheye and Donald Kennedy show how


This book invites readers to enter a two-floor virtual “gallery” where 60-plus images of birds reflecting the accomplishments of human pictorial history are on display. These are works in a genre the authors term Science Art—that is, art that says something about the natural world and how it works. Darryl Wheye and Donald Kennedy show how these works of art can advance our understanding of the ways nature has been perceived over time, its current vulnerability, and our responsibility to preserve its wealth.

Each room in the gallery is dedicated to a single topic. The rooms on the first floor show birds as icons, birds as resources, birds as teaching tools, and more. On the second floor, the images and their captions clarify what Science Art is and how the intertwining of art and science can change the way we look at each. The authors also provide a timeline linking scientific innovations with the production of images of birds, and they offer a checklist of steps to promote the creation and accessibility of Science Art. Readers who tour this unique and fascinating gallery will never look at art depicting nature in the same way again.

Published with assistance from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Public Understanding of Science and Technology Program.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times - Cornelia Dean

"Wheye and Kennedy take a close look at humanity's relationship with birds. . . . They arrange this art . . . in a kind of virtual 'gallery' that tells, room by room, of birds as symbols, a natural resource, exemplars of important biological principles or as species useful in encouraging conservation. And they describe art that reveals bird behavior—individual, intraspecies and interspecies, including relations between birds and people."—Cornelia Dean, New York Times
Audubon Magazine - Wayne Mones

"The images and captions in Humans, Nature, and Birds are all well-chosen, and the captions have the feel of an entertaining and informative gallery talk. Together they form a compelling exploration of one of the areas of life which is a source of great satisfaction for me and for so many fellow birders. This is one of my favorite books of 2008."—Wayne Mones, Audubon Magazine

Timothy Goldsmith

“The authors’ use of birds as a binding motif gives their book appeal and coherence, and the selection of art is eclectic and apt.”—Timothy Goldsmith, Yale University
Thomas E. Lovejoy

"The authors lead us through a wonderland where science and art intersect.”—Thomas E. Lovejoy, co-author of Climate Change and Biodiversity

H. Douglas Pratt

“A half-century ago, George M. Sutton’s essay ‘Is Bird-art Art?’ began the rehabilitation of avian art in fine art circles. Humans, Nature, and Birds, in an elegant survey of the grand interplay of bird art and ornithology, makes the definitive case.”—H. Douglas Pratt, Research Curator of Birds, North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences
Jared Diamond

“Just as a glass of a fine wine is meant to be enjoyed sip by sip, this book will be enjoyed page by page. Its . . . thought-provoking images depict our age-old fascination with birds, ranging from the owl traced 30,000 years ago in Chauvet Cave, to the goshawk attacking grouse in a dramatic modern painting.”—Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at UCLA and author of the Pulitzer-prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel

John Flicker

“Masterfully demonstrates how art connects people to nature, advances science, and helps protect our environment. I’ll never look at nature art the same way again.”—John Flicker, President, National Audubon Society
Julie Zickefoose

“Reading this book is like having a friend with a key to the natural history art museum. The authors take us on an excursion, conveying palpable delight in works of art from across the spectrum of time and around the world. ”—Julie Zickefoose, artist and author of Letters from Eden
Kathy Kelsey Foley

“Tells a powerful and well-documented story of the interconnectedness of creative expression and birds, building a sound case for recognizing Science Art as a genre.”—Kathy Kelsey Foley, Director, Woodson Art Museum

Stuart Pimm

“Birds were there—on cave walls and rock shelters thirty millennia ago, on Egyptian tombs, in Joseph Wright’s painting from the dawn of the Industrial Age, in Roger Tory Peterson’s first biodiversity guide, and today, where art is the only record of many species now gone forever. Wheye and Kennedy assemble the ultimate exhibition of bird art, with detailed notes that say so much about our world and our view of it.”—Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology, Duke University
James Prosek

“Beautifully examines where science and art overlap through the common territory of observation—and the human urge to both make sense of and embrace the great unknown.”—James Prosek, painter and author

Alan Brush

“The authors take us in a new direction—an edgy new direction—and force us to consider broadly the relation between art and science”—Alan Brush, University of Connecticut

Deseret News - Dave Gagon

"Informative and stimulating, a must-read book for any who have derided bird art in the past. It will change your thinking."—Dave Gagon, Deseret News
IBIS - Tim Birkhead

"[A] novel and fascinating volume. . . . It is an enthusiastic and enlightening account of the diverse ways our understanding of bird biology has been enhanced by art. . . . . The scientific monitoring of bird populations, motivated largely by a love of birds, provides a sensitive and accurate barometer of the quality of life. This book is a celebration of that fact."—Tim Birkhead, IBIS
Birder's World

"Humans, Nature, and Birds [contains] 69 pieces of bird art—from 30,000 year-old cave art to works by Audubon, Charley Harper, Robert Bateman, Vadim Gorbatov, and other artists—and what each says about our evolving understanding of nature.—Birder's World
Wildlife Activist

"This is a most unique, unusual, and thought provoking book."—Wildlife Activist
Northwest Science

"Humans, Nature, and Birds is a book from which scientists can learn about art, and artists can learn about science. It is challenging to integrate diverse fields, but this book does so effectively, mostly with non-technical language that makes it accessible to a wide readership."—Northwest Science

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Humans, Nature, and Birds

Science Art from Cave Walls to Computer Screens
By Darryl Wheye Donald Kennedy

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Darryl Wheye and Donald Kennedy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12388-3

Chapter One


Birds as Icons

The history of iconic birds serving as intermediaries to the gods or as ostensible models of human behavior is long and little known, but clues are noted in the captions.

The history of iconic bird masks and bird chimeras, both of which were sometimes venerated, is almost as long. A Paleolithic artist included what is usually interpreted as a bird mask in Lascaux, 12,000 years before pictographic writing was devised (see Plate 31), and much more recently, within the past few hundred years, an artist in New Guinea added a carved merganser (ducklike waterfowl) to his mask, and an artist in Burkina Faso added a large, carved decurved bill to his. The inclusion of bird parts in these three masks has often been interpreted to mean that the wearer relied on intervening guidance.

But iconographic chimeras, like sphinxes, griffins, winged horses (Pegasus), angels, and cherubs-the whole array of imagined beasts with incongruous parts-have been used to convey an amalgam of traits, and when the parts include bird wings and heads, the chimeras also suggest speed and vision. They are, however, far from biological reality. Soare the fire-emitting, winged dragons of Europe, even if these part-bird, part-reptile, warm-blooded(?) chimeras might portend a developing understanding that birds are feathered dinosaurs.

Just as certain live birds, like owls, eagles, falcons, ravens, doves, and even herons, have been used as metaphors for celestial intervention or for avian and human behavior, certain dead ones, like ducks and doves, have been used to signify wealth, prey, or protest. In some cases, as with the heron in ancient Egypt, which was thought to have sprung from the Nile and was associated with the origin of life, the role as a metaphor seems to be restricted to a particular place and set of conditions. In others, as with the eagle, the metaphors seem to be variable and widespread. In mythological and religious images, eagles often link humanity to events beyond human comprehension or control. In Roman myths they typically represent Zeus (plucking the liver from Prometheus or abducting Ganymede, son of the founder of Troy). In Christian images, eagles often represent John the Baptist; in Native American images they often represent the Thunderbird. Eagles also have their secular uses. They have appeared on money (see Plate 25) and flags for millennia and been linked to political individuals or political events. Leonardo, for example, used one to represent Francis I, who had ambitions to become the next Holy Roman Emperor.

Few are surprised that eagles, large and dramatic as they are, have had a long history as icons. Yet even songbirds have been icons. The Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), a popular cage bird in Europe and probably the most familiar bird in Christian paintings, is associated with the soul and with resurrection. During the plague outbreak in Europe (1347-1351) it was linked to healing and renewal, an iconic meaning that held for more than a century after the outbreak dissipated. The bird is still featured in forty-one of fifty-one extant Venetian paintings of Mary and Jesus produced between 1475-1525, but by the mid-1700s most viewers would not have known the history of the icon and would not have made the healing and renewal interpretation.

PLATES 2 AND 3 An Owl as Cave Art


In 1994 news of the discovery of Chauvet Cave in France and its walls full of Paleolithic art spread rapidly, and photographs of the woolly rhinoceroses, lions, bears and other animals, including this owl, were almost immediately available to accompany the early reports. Photographs of the owl were not as widely circulated as were those of the grotto's megafauna, but Paleolithic bird images were not as widely produced as the megafauna were, either. Years earlier, André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986), former director of the Museé de l'Homme in Paris, had surveyed seventy-two caves in France and neighboring countries and listed over 2,000 animal images on the walls. Among them, horse images outnumbered the rest, with 610; bison followed with 510; and mammoths came in a distant third with 205. Fish accounted for a paltry 8, and birds (or their heads) for only 6 (2 in Lascaux, 4 in Les Trois Frères).

The official cave Web site describes the Chauvet owl image as follows: "This finger tracing represents an owl. The position of the wings shows that its head is turned 180 degrees relative to its posterior face. The anatomical characteristics of the animal permit its attribution to Moyen Duc [Long-eared Owl] (Asio otus). This drawing was realized on the soft outer layer of the cave wall. In the background we see traces that show the wall surface was scraped before the drawing was made."


Evaluating avian taxonomy based on an ancient figure etched into the soft surface of a cave wall is a difficult business, and an alternative interpretation is available. It may be that the bird is facing forward and that the species might actually be an Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo). Given Paleolithic artists' fascination with large and imposing creatures, that conclusion strikes the authors as more plausible. To emphasize the resemblance between the cave image and the Eagle Owl, we have inserted a drawing of its head into the accompanying image (Plate 3).

Other factors-the relative size of the birds, their presence in the cave, and the suite of other cave images-support the alternative hypothesis. Eagle Owls are the size of eagles and prey on the smaller Long-eared Owls. They nest in caves, whereas Long-ears typically seek abandoned crow nests, found mostly in trees or shrubs. They are also impressive predators: they have been known to take down roe deer, and such accomplishments have earned for members of their genus (Bubo) a reputation as "Tigers of the Air." In contrast, Long-ears are more commonly preyed upon by others in their tribe. Long-ears have even evolved a defensive posture: They lean forward while arching their wings-like a swimmer poised to dive from a racing block. Then, by lifting the trailing edge of their wings skyward, they frame their face and appear more formidable, the way "owl eyespots" on the wings of certain moths may fool predators into thinking they are too large to take.

The message of a Paleolithic artist is unknowable, and the message of any work of art can change with time. The modified image (showing details of the head) and this discussion do not resolve the identity of the species, but they do raise the issue and provide today's viewers with additional information, allowing them to make the comparisons and consider alternatives for themselves.

PLATES 4, 5, AND 6 Falcons and Egyptian Kings: Relative Size Matters


In ancient Egypt, the king was a personification of the god Horus, the sky god, represented by a falcon. That falcon appears in both of these statues, which are about power: the falcon that conveys it and the viewer's perception of it. Chefren (Plates 4 and 5) built the second pyramid at Giza and the Sphinx. Nectanebo II (Plate 6), the last Egyptian pharaoh, ruled two millennia later as the civilization was winding down.

The statue of Chefren radiates authority, even as he smiles above his fake ceremonial beard. Two lions (symbols of power and protection) are incorporated into the base of his throne along with a knotted papyrus representing Lower Egypt and a lily representing Upper Egypt (a hieroglyphic message of unity). The strength of Chefren's command is conveyed through his relationship with Horus, seen here as the life-size falcon perched behind his head, with its wings spread in a further symbol of protection. The falcon is strategically placed so that when viewed from the side, Chefren appears to be operating under its protective guidance. But when he is viewed from the front, the bird is hidden, so that approaching subjects will see Chefren as all-powerful. In contrast, in the statue of Nectanebo II, Horus dwarfs the king, and it is the falcon's double crown that represents authority over Upper and Lower Egypt.

Ancient Egyptian civilization depended on the moderate annual flooding of the Nile. A margin of 5 feet (1.5 meters) was the difference between the river failing to overrun the bank and floodwaters washing away the irrigation system. Naturally, the failure and success of the floods shaped regal influence. As regal influence shifted over time-in response to floods and other factors-so did the relative size of the falcon in commemorative artwork. Chefren's reign was prosperous as measured by the extensiveness of his major constructions and the wealth represented by the contents of private tombs. Nectanebo II, on the other hand, ruled at a time of collapse. The modest image seen here might suggest that he is handing over responsibility for Egypt's collective troubles to the gods.


The ebb and flow of Egyptian civilization was closely linked to the effect of extreme weather on the flow of the Nile and thereby to annual harvests and the resulting density of the populations of small migratory birds and other vertebrates upon which falcons based their diet. The pattern of occasional droughts and catastrophically high floods allowed the natural history of falcons to figure prominently in the lore of this agricultural society: when the falcons were absent, so too was prosperity.

PLATE 7 The Dove as Messenger


Sixteen popes have been called Gregory. The one seen here, also known as Saint Gregory or Gregory the Great (c. 590-604), was the first monk to become pope-and the one after whom the Gregorian Chant is named. A prolific writer, he is often shown with a dove, as he is in this carved ivory relief found on the cover of a ninth-century German manuscript. He once commented, "What Scripture is to the educated, images are to the ignorant."

The scene shown here calls to mind a story that his associate Peter the Deacon recorded in Vita (xxviii). The tale goes roughly like this: Just before dictating his discourse on Ezechiel, Pope Gregory drew a curtain between his secretary and himself. The dictation followed, but was halting in a way that concerned the secretary. Finally, the repeated pauses unsettled the secretary so much that he peeped through an opening in the partition. To his surprise, the pope appeared to be taking dictation himself-and it was coming from a dove. The idea struck a chord in those who heard the story, perhaps because of the biblical account of the dove and the ark and the bird's role as scout.


The dove perched on the shoulder of Gregory the Great as he writes is reminiscent of the falcon perched on the shoulders of Chefren as he ruled (see Plate 4). But assigning a biological basis for the iconic dove requires more speculation than assigning one for the falcon does. Perhaps the selection of a dove could relate to the quiet quality of its voice; the murmuring of the dove surely is more suggestive of speech than, say, the trill or warble of a songbird or the cry of a raptor. In the teachings of the medieval Christian church, a quiet voice implied compliance. Hugh of Fouilloy in his Book on Birds, written between 1132 and 1152, says, "Instead of a song the dove uses a sigh, because by wailing it laments its willful acts." Hugh also credits the dove with joining flocks, forgoing predation and stealing, and raising "twin chicks." Medieval science in Hugh's day swept up some interesting direct observations, but it also included a great deal of mythology and superstition.

PLATE 8 Ravens as Omens: Some Biological Underpinnings


An old superstition, one apparently going back for millennia, warned that it was bad luck to hear a raven call from the left. The Roman dramatist Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE) made note of it in Aulularia (act iv, scene 3): "It means something-that raven cawing on my left just now!"

Wariness after hearing a raven call from the left is the subject of this painting. It takes its title from a work by John Gay, who made the "old wives' tale" into an eighteenth-century fable, The Farmer's Wife and the Raven. In Gay's fable, the bird explains that disaster is neither caused by nor foretold by ill omens. The story goes as follows: While taking eggs to the market, a farmer's wife hears a raven call from the "unlucky side of the road" and concludes that trouble lies ahead. Her fears materialize when her horse stumbles and the eggs fall out of her basket and break. She blames the raven for the loss of the eggs:

"That raven on yon left-hand oak (Curse on his ill-betiding croak) Bodes me no good."

The unperturbed bird asks:

"But why on me those curses thrown? Goody, the fault was all your own."

When she points out that the bird spooked her horse, the bird faults her for choosing one ill suited to the task.


What makes a raven croak? Many things can induce vocalization in birds, and members of the crow family-like the raven-can be garrulous. In this case, however, the sight of a sizable cache of eggs could well have stimulated the bird to send out a vocal alert to fellow ravens. These birds share foraging information when they discover a good amount of food, like a carcass. By scouting separately, members of a group can improve the chances of spotting such sporadic finds; pooling information is an effective strategy, and birds would be likely to remain within earshot.

For birds that roost colonially and seek large food objects-the large vultures of Africa's Great Rift Valley present another example-sharing information about a big find is a way of making a large resource available to the group. The biologist Colin Pennycuick once studied White-backed and Ruppell's Griffon Vultures (Gyps africanus and G. rueppellii) using a small, motorized sailplane. Sometimes while taking one of the thermals over the Serengeti Plain, he would notice a vulture at about his visual limit in one direction and another in the other direction. When he landed to eat his sandwich, he was surprised at the crowd of vultures that accumulated around him one by one. They must have examined the pilot in some dismay, wondering where the carcass was. The first finder is usually not a biologist, of course, but a vulture, and the find is usually large enough to share.

The British painter and engraver George Stubbs, who produced this image, was the son of a currier and leather salesman. Virtually self-taught, Stubbs specialized in animal images, particularly horses. He painted the scene shown here on earthenware produced for him by a Lunar Society member, Josiah Wedgwood. The Lunar Society was founded in England (see Plate 44). Members met informally each month to discuss science and watch experiments: "They caught at discoveries with delight, sure that every find could help them to crack the elusive codes of nature." Wedgwood, for example, is usually described as a potter, but he also devised a high temperature thermometer for use in his kiln that won him election to the Royal Society.

PLATE 9 A Dead Crow as an Icon


One winter day Andrew Wyeth found a frozen crow while walking in the fields in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. In 1942 he painted that crow, and in 1943, while the war in Europe was raging, the painting was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Europe's crow is called the Carrion Crow (Corvus corone), and the death of the bird that cleans battlefields may not have been lost on wartime viewers of the painting. In fact, the strife of the 1940s appears to have prompted Wyeth to produce numerous sober images; many of his works from this period include dead birds, shriveled vegetation, and buildings abandoned or left in ruin, and one is a portrait of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) in flight. Wyeth sought to eliminate technical mannerisms that could stand between his expression and the viewer, and precise, detailed scenes like Winter Fields tend to evoke loneliness and remembrance.


The biological messages in this image are seemingly straightforward: Life is temporary, its requirements are exact, and for a lucky few, senescence will precede death. Viewers today would probably not be surprised if this painting were a commentary by Wyeth on World War II. Now, however, the crow symbolizes a quite different war: urban and suburban crows are the most prominent and visible victims of West Nile virus, which has become epidemic in some populations of U.S. birds. Because the virus is also a threat to humans and domestic animals, it is a serious public health concern. Perhaps the Wyeth painting will someday see service in a public information campaign warning of the spread of the West Nile virus or another bird-related disease. The new field of movement ecology discovers more and more about how physiology, evolution, behavior, and environmental forces determine where birds, and the viruses they sometimes harbor, travel.


Excerpted from Humans, Nature, and Birds by Darryl Wheye Donald Kennedy Copyright © 2008 by Darryl Wheye and Donald Kennedy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Darryl Wheye is a freelance artist and writer specializing primarily in birds and Science Art. She lives in Woodside, CA. Donald Kennedy is editor in chief of the journal Science. He is president emeritus and Bing Professor of Environmental Science emeritus, Stanford University. He lives in Palo Alto, CA.

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