Hunting for beauty: Mankind's long fascination with birds, bird symbols and bird art

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 10, 2013 - 2:13 PM

In honor of tomorrow’s pheasant opener, our outdoors columnist explores mankind’s — and his own — long fascination with birds, bird symbols and bird art.

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Rooster pheasants are among the world’s most beautiful game birds.

Photo: Dennis Anderson • dennis.anderson@startribune.com,

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Birds are among my earliest memories, ducks and geese mostly, also meadowlarks perched on fence posts out back of our North Dakota home. To me, the meadowlarks’ flutelike calls signaled the wide-open spaces that surrounded us. I was very young then, and birds defined our family’s seasonal cadence: They returned in spring, raised their young in summer and gathered in huge flocks in fall.

To complete the cycle, in winter, down in our basement, my dad fashioned decoy silhouettes from plywood, and my brother and I painted the fake birds as realistically as we could. This was wildlife art as we knew it, or more properly bird art, and our cleaned shotguns stood propped in a corner, the hunting seasons ended. By then, even the big buteo hawks had left the cold plains to scrounge for food farther south.

Our fascination with birds, played out rudimentarily, was no genetic miscue. Mankind’s long, byzantine trail is littered with birds, bird symbols and bird art. No other creature has more fully idealized our hopes, fears and spiritual aspirations, from the Sumerians 5,000 years ago, to the Sioux and Chippewa whose teepees and huts once blanketed Minnesota.

The subject arises because the state’s pheasant season opens Saturday at 9 a.m., and in Yellow Medicine and Lyon and Stevens counties, and in a score or so of other counties, bird art of a very real kind will play itself out. Some scenes will be two-dimensional, as if framed through the windows of pickups, with orange-clad hunters frozen in lockstep, trampling waves of big bluestem and other grasses. Other scenes will unfold panoramically. Either way, colors will borrow from the full autumnal palette — cottonwood yellows, sumac reds and the greens of farmers’ combines — as dogs bound ahead of hunters in pursuit of the florid rooster pheasant.

For centuries, religious dogma held that only those creations that evoked God’s will or beauty’s rapture qualified as art. Yet Pope Benedict XVI as recently as 2011 loosened that necktie a bit, saying “art is like an open doorway to the infinite, toward a beauty and truth that go beyond everyday reality.’’ This definition would seem to include birds in all of their colorful representations, and suggests that for art to surpass mere self-expression, an audience is required.

Certainly the reverence with which Native Americans have long considered birds elevates them from the simply beautiful to art. Variously, tribes believe the owl, the crow, the hawk, the raven and the eagle both symbolize the past and signal the future, and are critical, then, to their world views.

A half-world away, Leo Tolstoy in 1896 threw in his two cents worth, venturing that for art to transpire, a relationship between its creator and its recipient is necessary.

“The receiver of a true artistic impression (must be) so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s,’’ Tolstoy said, “as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express.’’

In Minnesota, this curious magnetism of birds infuses our culture, and because it does, it infuses our art.

Blessed with wildly diverse landscapes, the state is pockmarked not only with pheasants in western and southern grasslands, but eagles in southeastern hardwoods, ravens in the North Woods, prairie chickens in the northwest and countless other birds in countless other habitats. Little wonder we have more wildlife artists here than any state, and more winners by far of the federal duck stamp contest.

Thus it will be Saturday morning at 9 when the pheasant season opens that the table will be set once more for art to come to life, as bird lovers of a most particular kind join in exhaustive hikes with close friends, hoping to flush a rooster or two.

Perhaps multiple shots will ring out, perhaps none. Either way, at noontime, lunches will be spread on pickup tailgates and tired setters, spaniels and Labradors will curl beneath a warming autumn sun.

Later, as darkness gathers and the day’s quarry is cleaned, the moon will rise and the season’s first day will be toasted.

These or similar scenes will someday be committed to posterity when brushes are pooled in watercolors, oils or acrylics, and art is completed, with an appreciative audience waiting.

After all, this is Minnesota, and in mid-October each year nearly 100,000 of us disassemble to the hinterlands to express our continuing fascination with birds, joining in this exercise the fascinations of ancient peoples, and those of my dad, my brother and I in our basement years ago.

Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424

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