In 1812, John James Audubon filled a wooden box with about 200 of his paintings of American birds and left it with a relative for safekeeping while he went off on one of his many trips. When he returned to retrieve the paintings, he discovered to his horror that they had been destroyed, shredded by nesting rats.
As he described it later, his first reaction was “a burning heat” in his brain, a headache so intense it kept him awake for days.
Then, though, he reconsidered. “I felt pleased,” he wrote, “that I might now make better drawings than before.”
We know the results — Audubon turned himself into the most famous practitioner of what some call “bird art.” Copies of his “Birds of America,” published section by section in the mid-19th century, are among the most valuable illustrated books.
But Audubon was only one of a number of naturalist artists who have made their careers portraying birds. And in his day, before cameras or reliable preservation techniques, bird artists gathered and recorded important scientific information about the ornithological world. For him, his colleagues and rivals, the ability to observe their surroundings and draw what they saw was not just a prerequisite for making and selling art. Observation and illustration were important tools of research.
Four new books illuminate the confluence of science, art and ornithology, which flowered perhaps most brilliantly in Audubon’s day, although it had ancient roots. The art of depicting birds emerged in the cave culture of Paleolithic times. The first drawing of a bird (that we know about) was of an owl, found on the wall of a cave in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, France, in 1994.
And though sketching may have given way to the high-tech tools of zoology, the authors of three books agree that drawing and painting continue to be superior tools for people seeking to learn about birds. If you find that hard to believe, consider that many contemporary birders prefer the field guide drawings of Roger Tory Peterson and David Allen Sibley to guides relying on photography.
All three of these books are filled with glorious images of drawn and painted birds, fascinating anecdotes about how the images were made and odd facts. Edward Lear, for example, the master of the limerick, was an accomplished bird artist who considered this work his true calling.
But there is much more than beautiful images and bird-art trivia. In “Humans, Nature and Birds: Science Art From Cave Walls to Computer Screens” (Yale University Press, July 2008), Darryl Wheye, a California artist, and Donald Kennedy, an ecologist and emeritus president of Stanford, take a close look at humanity’s relationship with birds. Ms. Wheye and Dr. Kennedy, also the former editor of the journal Science, have collected bird art ranging from the cave painting of an owl to a portrait of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which appeared on the cover of Science in 2005 to accompany a report, much criticized since, that an ivorybill had been observed in an Arkansas swamp and that the species was not extinct after all.
They arrange this art not in chronological order or by species or geography, but 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.
Among other things, they note that birds as icons are a contradictory lot. They embody wisdom (owls) and stupidity (dodos); peace (doves) and war (eagles); freedom (in flight) and enforced propriety (when caged).
“Birds: The Art of Ornithology” (Rizzoli, April 2008), by Jonathan Elphick, an eminent British ornithologist, is a more conventional, and exhaustive, survey of bird art from the work of medieval weavers to artists painting today. If your knowledge of bird art is limited to Audubon, Sibley and Peterson, the parade of characters who walk across its pages will be a revelation.
Lear, for example, was celebrated for his art, Mr. Elphick writes, describing his lithograph of a gaudy scarlet macaw as illustrating “the individual character he gave to his bird subjects without sacrificing scientific objectivity.” But Lear’s prosperous family lost its money when he was a child, and he struggled as a bird artist for patronage and other support. Worse, his vision faded, immensely complicating his work.
Audubon prided himself on working “from life,” but, like his contemporaries, he usually worked with birds he killed. When he could not get a live golden eagle to hold still, Mr. Elphick recounts, he contemplated letting it go. Instead he stabbed it through the heart and posed it to produce one of his most famous images: a golden eagle carrying off a snowshoe hare.
Drawing and painting were almost the least of the troubles of early bird artists. Field trips in those days were rugged. And once they had made their art, the artists often faced formidable difficulty reproducing it in high-quality (and marketable) form. In the early 19th century, for example, reliable printing houses were few and far between.
How Audubon’s art developed is a theme of an introductory essay by the historian Richard Rhodes in “Audubon: Early Drawings” (Harvard University Press, September 2008), which reproduces one of the few extant collections of his early work, the Harris collection at Harvard. These drawings are interesting not just because of their seemingly naïve charm, but also because of their great technical distance from the work produced in “Birds of America.” In this collection, the birds appear in more or less stilted poses, usually in profile. They appear almost always on an otherwise empty page. Audubon offers terse notes to describe their habits, a practice he dropped in “Birds.”
Even today, scientists sometimes consult Audubon, Lear and other early practitioners of bird art to learn about extinct species like the Carolina parakeet, the subject of another famous Audubon image. Or they look for hints of how the habitats or habits of surviving species might have changed since the 18th or 19th centuries.
These books might seem to make the case that photography has nothing to contribute to the science and art of ornithology. But a fourth new book, “Egg and Nest” (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, September 2008), by Rosamond Purcell, Linnea S. Hall and René Corado, is a most effective rebuttal. It collects photographs that Rosamond Purcell made at the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, Calif., a natural history collection specializing in the eggs and nests of birds from around the world.
In an essay, the naturalist Bernd Heinrich offers his explanation for, as he calls it, “the allure of eggs and nests.” Ms. Hall, the director of the foundation, and Mr. Corado, its collections manager, offer detailed explanations of which bird laid each egg or built each nest and descriptions of how collectors gather specimens and preserve eggs by “blowing” out their contents. They even provide an X-ray of a gravid kiwi, its body seemingly filled by an egg, and explain that kiwis lay one egg at a time, “the largest eggs relative to their body size of any living birds.”
If you are wondering why anyone would spend a life in a pursuit as eccentric as collecting eggs and nests, Ms. Purcell’s work will tell you. She selected a range of specimens, eggs brightly colored and plain, and nests made conventionally of twigs or of materials as bizarre as nails. Then she photographed them in natural light.
Her luminous results explain without words why people have been collecting eggs and nests for centuries.
A picture caption on Tuesday with an article about four new books on birds was incomplete. The picture, “Bell’s Vireo” by Rosamond Purcell, showed a Bell’s Vireo nest into which the bird had woven bits of newspaper (including a scrap that mentioned Adolph S. Ochs, founder of the modern New York Times).
A picture caption on Tuesday with an article on four new books of bird paintings and photographs misidentified the birds whose heads were shown in a picture of heads juxtaposed with eggs. The heads were from unidentified prey found along with eggs of the Aplomado falcon; they were not falcon heads.