Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

June 2016

Vol. 44, No. 3

About Books: An Artist Does the Altricial

Mark Lynch

Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest. Julie Zickefoose. 2016. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“If you would know how something is built, draw it.” (p. xiii)

For centuries, artists have attempted to show the passage of time in their work. Rembrandt captured the process of aging by painting a long series of self-portraits throughout his life. Monet investigated the changes of light and shadow throughout a day by painting the same haystacks at different hours. Modern Japanese artist On Kawara executed a series of 3,000 date paintings that consisted simply of the same date painted on a colored background. If he could not finish a painting on that date, it was destroyed. His One Million Year series records the years back one million years from the date he conceived the project as well as one million years into the future. The series ended with his death. Contemporary photographer Amy Elizabeth Skinner has for years done a photographic self-portrait—not a “selfie” by any means—every single day and posted it on-line. Her considerable body of work traces her inner thoughts as she has faced different situations through her life. Artist, writer, natural historian, and contributing editor to Bird Watcher’s Digest, Julie Zickefoose has also captured the passage of time, but in her work, it is by painting various species of baby birds each day until they fledge. This outstanding body of work is published in Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest.

Julie Zickefoose has worked as a bird rehabilitator since 1984 and has been what she calls “a bluebird nest landlord” for decades. Because of this, she has been in intimate contact with very young birds every spring. It occurred to her that probably the best way to learn about the rapid physiological changes that occur in nestlings is to take the same bird out of the nest every day and paint it. “I’m not even sure what compelled me to start the project, other than a burning desire to understand more of how baby birds are put together, how they grow and develop.” (p. xiii)

Each chapter is dedicated to a different species. Zickefoose began painting the nestlings of the cavity nesting species on her property, bluebirds and swallows, and eventually continued this labor-intensive project with seventeen different species of birds, all altricial species. “Altricial birds are born blind and helpless; all the songbirds of the order Passeriformes fall into this category. Precocial birds, by contrast, hatch with open eyes and strong legs, and pick up their own food from the start.” (p. xiv)

The species she chose to paint were a matter of chance: either whatever species she came across in her role as a rehabilitator or species she discovered nesting on her large eastern Ohio homestead. Included are such familiar species as titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Indigo Bunting and Ruby-throated Hummingbird. She has yet to rehab a White-breasted Nuthatch and is looking forward to painting those young birds when the opportunity arises. At first glance, many of the newborn birds seem to look alike until you study Zickefoose’s paintings and the differences are revealed. A few species are unique in their development and are the most different-looking fom the start. These include the Chimney Swift, Mourning Dove, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Only one species of warbler, the Prothonotary, has been included so far. Readers may be surprised that Zickefoose also draws species that many consider pests. Zickefoose had long had to evict House Sparrows from her bluebird nesting boxes and, like so many of us, had considered them as something to get rid of and paid no further attention to them. But one day as she was about to once again unceremoniously evict some squatter House Sparrows, her nine-year-old daughter Phoebe asked her why she wouldn’t want to paint that species’ young? And Zickefoose realized she was right.

Although a few artist natural historians have painted nestling birds before, typically it was only a few species and never on a daily basis. So this project is truly groundbreaking. No matter how long you have been birding, you have never seen common species in this way. The artwork and writing in Baby Birds brings us close into the nest and allows us to gaze at the accelerated development of a bird at our leisure. It is an amazing process to witness.

Zickefoose would delicately remove a nestling, always the same one, for a short period of time every day. She would feed the bird several times while it was being painted. She attempted to paint the bird from two different views at each setting. Later she found that the bird she was working with actually gained more weight than the other nestlings. Several times in Baby Birds, Zickefoose emphasizes that her credo in this project is taken from the Hippocratic Oath: “First do no harm,” and she goes to great ends to make sure her artistic intentions do not adversely affect the birds.

Each session with a species was painted on a single sheet of watercolor paper that the artist kept rolled up under her art table:

The paintings were done on 20 x 30 inch sheets of 140-pound Fabriano or Winsor Newton hot-press watercolor paper. There’s something about the smooth, quiet surface of hot-press paper that helps me relax and keeps me from noodling too much detail into the painting. Detail, obviously, is called for, but speed is of the essence. (p. xix)

It was important to Zickefoose to get all she saw done quickly so she could return the nestling to the nest. She often didn’t notice the small daily changes in the birds anatomy until she looked back at her paintings days later. The reader will be amazed at seeing amorphous fleshy blobs slowly develop the beginnings of feathers and gradually turn into the birds we are all familiar with.

At the beginning of each chapter there are two, three, or four page spreads of Zickefoose’s watercolors of that species, reproducing the large watercolor sheets she used. Many other additional watercolors are placed among her journal entries, which form the bulk of the text of Baby Birds. Her handwritten notes are often included next to the paintings. There are a few full-page fully realized paintings including a wonderful one of Zickefoose’s daughter, Phoebe, contemplating her namesake, a young Eastern Phoebe. The reproductions are superb and the layout aesthetically pleasing. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is to be congratulated for publishing a book of this quality while managing to keep the price reasonable.

Each species presented a different set of challenges to rehabilitator Zickefoose. Death is always hovering close by. There were relentless rat snakes and other predators trying to rob nests. One nestling swallowed a large twig that lodged in its crop and then had to be delicately removed by Zickefoose. Large blowfly larvae suddenly popped up underneath the skin of young House Wrens. Keeping the nestlings hydrated and free from infestation by mites was a continual concern. The reader learns that the best way to rid a nest of mites is to remove the birds and then microwave the nest. As the young Chimney Swifts matured, Zickefoose’s husband Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, built a mock chimney for them to cling to. Birds are eventually moved to larger enclosures or flight tents and then released. Each release as described by Julie Zickefoose in her journals is an exhilarating event touched with a bit of sadness at seeing her charges leave. Do some return the next year and how does she know if they do? You will have to read the book to find out.

It is amazing what Zickefoose uncovers in her careful scrutiny of these nestling birds. After painting newly hatched hummingbirds, she realizes that from above they look amazingly like the poisonous caterpillar of the black-winged flannel moth. Could this be some form of protective mimicry? The inside coloration of the mouths of nestling cuckoos is a startling scarlet red sprinkled with blue-white pearls. Young nestling swifts do not gape for food by facing up, like most other birds, but instead face downwards. This presents challenges when trying to feed them. Zickefoose also notes a variety of other bird behaviors like the noises that different nestlings make, including snakelike hisses or sizzling rattles.

Julie Zickefoose describes her Baby Birds this way: “What results from all this is an odd sort of book, like a Victorian-era curiosity” (p. xx) Baby Birds is that rare book that combines an extraordinary art project with serious natural history study. Like the canvases of Rembrandt and Monet, her work is about time and nature, about development and aging. This book offers a studied look at the subtle changes that occur going from blind helplessness to mastering flight. More than just a “Victorian curiosity,” Baby Birds is the record of a lifetime’s work in several fields. And it is not over. As Zickefoose bluntly exclaims at the end of the book: “I don’t want this project to end. So it won’t.” (p. 325)

We can all eagerly look forward to Baby Birds volume 2.


Note: The Museum of American Bird Art at Mass Audubon is exhibiting Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest – Watercolors by Julie Zickefoose April 30–September 18, 2016.

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