Posts Tagged 'birds'

Black Birders on What Humans Can Learn from Birds

Summer is a popular time for birding. Binoculars optional—all you really need to do is look and listen and you’ll see that birds are everywhere: working, singing, crafting. However, some birders know that they have to consider their own safety and security while viewing birds, not because of the dangers of wildlife but because of racism. With the recent viral video of the false police report made by a white woman against an African American man birding in Central Park, birding has become part of the national dialogue around race. Within 48 hours of the birder’s video post, which took place on the same day that George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, an enterprising group of nature enthusiasts, ecologists, and science educators joined forces to create the first ever Black Birders Week to bring awareness to issues of race and the outdoors. I spoke to three organizers of the group about the video, birds, art, and more.

From left: Nicole Jackson, Kassandra Ford, Ashley Gary

Nicole Jackson, Program Coordinator at The Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, told me that such incidents of racism directed at Black birders and outdoor enthusiasts “is something that happens more often than people realize.” Kassandra Ford, a PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, echoed this, saying, “I wish I could say I was surprised by [the video], but I wasn’t at all.” Ashley Gary, a freelance Science Communicator also known as The Wildlife Host, remarked, “It is exhausting to be a Black person because there are so many things you have to worry about.”

Although Black Birders Week was formed to address racial inequities, its aim is also to highlight the positive impacts of African Americans in birding, environmental work, and the STEM fields. I decided to ask these three founding members of Black Birders Week to weigh in on some works in the DMA’s collection depicting birds, since birds’ relationship to human society is nothing new, and in fact goes back millennia.

Pendant: bird-man, Tairona, 1200–1500, Tumbaga, Dallas Museum of Art, the Nora and John Wise Collection, bequest of Nora Wise, 1989.W.474

The first piece, a bird-man gold pendant, would have been worn around the neck by elite men in what is present-day Colombia. The piece may reflect the Tairona belief that religious leaders could temporarily leave their human form to embody animals and gain knowledge from them. This pendant shows a bird of prey in somewhat of a dual human-animal form as the bird wears earrings and perhaps a garment. I asked Kassandra for her insights on birds of prey. “Birds are just,” Kassandra then paused, “excuse my language—but they’re badass. They’re intense, they’re ferocious, especially birds of prey. They have an aura of pride and power in the way that they hold themselves, in the way that they dive-bomb prey. That kind of attitude is like a warrior.” Indeed the piece may very well have been worn with that same aplomb.

Dance headdress, Igbo peoples, mid-20th century, wood, paint, metal, and fiber, Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., 1975.27.McD

This dance headdress by an artist of the Igbo of present-day southeastern Nigeria would have been worn in dynamic display during a masquerade. The carving depicts a seat for the spirits, of which the birds may be indicative as messengers to the spirit world. Ashley found the bird figures in this piece to be observing the activity from all angles, suggesting omniscience. She compared it to Edgar Allan Poe’s infamous Raven, who silently watches and knows all, as the poem goes: “the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core.”

Double-spout strap-handle vessel depicting a falcon, Paracas, 500–400 BCE, ceramic and resin-suspended paint,
Dallas Museum of Art, The Nora and John Wise Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jake L. Hamon, the Eugene McDermott Family, Mr. and Mrs. Algur H. Meadows and the Meadows Foundation, Incorporated, and Mr. and Mrs. John D. Murchison, 1976.W.85

The double-spout vessel depicting a falcon is a funerary object from Peru’s Paracas peninsula. Many two-spouted vessels were musical devices that whistled when poured. Bird imagery is common in Paracas art, and music was also a crucial element of life, including in burial rituals, festivals, and ceremonial communications with ancestors. Since birds are among the most magisterial song makers in the animal kingdom, it seems fitting that a culture highly valuing music would also esteem an animal known for impressive sounds.

Bird calls play a major role in how birders learn to locate and learn about a bird’s life. Ashley noted that birds have the unique ability to sing two notes at once, since birds produce sounds from an organ called the syrinx, a two-sided voice box in their chest. According to author David Sibley, birds sing to communicate and mark territory. They can read their audience too, as they sing differently to mates than to rivals, and some species have over 200 songs in their repertoire. To find out more about bird behaviors, tune in to our Arts & Letters Live event with David Sibley, available now through July 28.

All three birders we interviewed spoke of the meditative aspect of birding, how it quiets the mind and fuels the spirit. The vast array of artistic depictions of birds, Nicole speculated, may reflect the dichotomy between the ubiquity of birds in our lives and their simultaneous mystery. “Birds are everywhere,” Nicole observed, “but there’s the dynamic that we don’t know everything about them. It’ll be a lifetime before you’re close to knowing everything about birds.” In a time when many people are aiming for social change, Nicole’s final observation struck me as a potent lesson to learn from the only surviving dinosaurs: “Birds are very resilient and very adaptable.” The intersection of nature and society also struck a note for me in one of Kassandra’s effusions about the pleasures of birding: “Birds can be unapologetically themselves without worrying about being judged.  We as humans can learn from them.”

Dr. Carolee Klimchock is a Program Manager for Arts & Letters Live at the DMA.

Birds of a Feather

There is something in human nature that makes people want to show off. Whether it is a new pair of shoes, a nice watch, or a brand new car, we all enjoy the “oohs” and “ahhs” that stylish objects can provoke–and it has been that way for thousands of years. Ancient Peruvian cultures, for example, loved many exotic things, especially the flashy feathers of tropical birds. The collection of the Dallas Museum of Art contains fine examples of the ancient Peruvians’ fascination with birds and their plumage. Hundreds of tropical bird species live in the Amazon rainforest, miles away from the Peruvian coast. It took quite a bit of effort (and riches) to obtain these birds from so far away; therefore, they were considered extremely valuable. Feathers were used as decoration in the form of headdresses, designed collages, and pictorial mosaics.

Panel with rectangles of blue and yellow featherwork, Peru, far south coast, Ocoña Valley, Huari culture, c. A.D. 650-850, feathers (Blue and Gold Macaw), cotton cloth, and camelid fiber cloth, Dallas Museum of Art, Textile Purchase Fund, 2001.262

In this Huari piece, currently on view in Face to Face: International Art at the DMA, blue and yellow feathers are used to create a brilliant geometric composition. The Blue and Yellow Macaw, typically found in Panama and the northern part of South America, was probably the source of the materials, which were used over a thousand years ago. The feathers were individually wrapped in a cotton cord and then attached to a cloth panel, making this a very labor intensive composition. This piece was likely found along Peru’s south coast, in a site with many other textiles and feather pieces stored inside large, decorated ceramic jars. A featherwork like this was probably some kind of religious offering.

A demonstration of feather weaving from "Textiles of Ancient Peru and Their Techniques," Raoul d’Harcourt, 1962.

Featherwork neckpiece, Peru, north coast, Chimú culture, c. A.D. 1470-1528, cotton, feathers, and shell beads, Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., 1972.23.1.McD

This brilliantly colored feather neckpiece comes from the Chimú culture, on Peru’s north coast. The meaning of the design is unclear, but there is a human figure with a large headdress, along with fish and sea birds known as cormorants. At the bottom are rows of beads made from spondylus shell, which comes from Ecuador. The bright turquoise feathers in this work probably came from the Spangled Cotinga or the Paradise Tanager, both of which are relatively small birds with vibrant plumage. The darker blue-purple details do not seem to be woven like the other feathers; it is possible that they are from a bird called the Purple Honeycreeper, which is found in several South American locations, but not on the Peruvian coast. This piece showcases materials collected hundreds of miles away from the Chimú area, which is an indication of the power and prestige of the owner of this piece, as well as the intricate trading system that was likely in place.

Spouted vessel with tubular handle: macaw effigy, Peru, north coast, Viru, 300-100 B.C., ceramic and slip, Dallas Museum of Art, The Nora and John Wise Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jake L. Hamon, the Eugene McDermott Family, Mr. and Mrs. Algur H. Meadows and the Meadows Foundation, and Mr. and Mrs. John D. Murchison, 1976.W.91

The DMA’s very own mascot, Arturo, provides yet another great example (although slightly less colorful) of just how much ancient American cultures treasured non-native birds. This macaw or parrot vessel was made by the Salinar, a very early culture from Peru’s north coast. Real macaws and parrots are of course brilliantly colored, but ceramics from the north coast were traditionally painted using only red and white, no matter what their subject. Macaws weren’t the only animals that were depicted in vessel form. Ceramics showing monkeys, jaguars, and even killer whales have been found at sites throughout Peru.

Friday Photos: Let's Get Ornithological!

Over the past few weeks, whenever I left my house, I was dive-bombed by birds. At first, the experience was surreal and Hitchcockian: an ugly honking sound, and then mockingbirds—always the same two culprits—would take turns swooping just inches over my head. I wasn’t sure what I’d done to upset them, but this past weekend, I finally solved the mystery. It turns out that my assailants had built a nest in the ivy over my front porch. This is the best image I could get without getting pecked:

Between these hatchlings and the chickens I recently adopted, I’ve been feeling a little bit plagued by birds lately. So I thought I would use this blog post as an opportunity to share some of my favorite bird-related artwork in the DMA’s collection.

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I’m not sure that there’s a figure as ubiquitous in art around the world and across time as that of the bird. The images of birds I’ve selected are only a few of the many that can be found in the museum. What are your favorites?

Tom Jungerberg

IMLS Grant Coordinator


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