Bird Hide

Bird Hide

For years I was searching for dead birds. Not just any dead birds; finding dead birds, in and of itself, is dead easy. Dead birds have a habit of just showing up: found shriveled on the street after flying into the windows of skyscrapers; inhabiting the avian galleries and overfilling the ornithological specimen drawers of the natural history museums I frequent too often; rendered painstakingly in the trompe-l’oil paintings of the Dutch Renaissance, or the splendid oversized watercolors of James Audubon. No, not any of these, each in its own way, a snap to find, to see and often to smell.

I was looking for the preserved, and sometimes-stuffed feathered specimens of a certain ‘Uncle Abbot’ with whom I was obsessed, the so-called father of camouflage, for whom, it could be said, dead birds existed so as to model their own disappearance.

This Uncle Abbott – a fine and furious collector, examiner and sculptor of dead birds – ‘discovered’ two linked theories of protective colouration in nature – ‘obliterative coloration’ and ‘disruptive patterning’. These laws, he claimed, were universal; all birds, and by extension all non-human creatures, had evolved to disappear (in relation to one landscape and point-of-view or another). His elaborate system of research, proof and demonstration of these laws, developed and refined between 1885 and the early years of the twentieth-century, had dead birds as its crux. Avian skins, reconfigured by various means, were the basis for a system aimed at the production, communication and, most centrally, the embodiment of knowledge.

Uncle Abbott’s system of knowledge production and dissemination, which I have come to call ‘dead bird epistemology’, is rooted in the nitty-gritty of feathers, arsenic and lambs wool wadding. Dead birds arrived at Uncle Abbott’s fortress-like New England studio at the base of Mount Monadnock. Their provenances were various; sometimes he brought them in freshly-killed from the woods around his tiny village of Dublin, New Hampshire; other times he collected them from the exotic bird markets of Sardinia and Naples, killed them, and then toted them across the Atlantic in giant trunks. He built up a menagerie of deceased beings, out of which he created taxidermy sculptures of local grouses, ducks and blue jays. He preserved, and plucked the feathers of his exotic acquisitions: peacocks, birds of paradise and flamingos.

Originally trained as a society portrait painter, by 1895 Uncle Abbott had a new set of subjects to sit for him; and these ones had no problems sitting still, as long as they didn’t start to rot. He painted them with a keen eye, sometimes in meticulous detail, but always in the process of blending into the environments he created for them, sometimes drawn directly from nature, and at other times in the universe of his own mind.

Photography, itself another medium of death, became an additional facet of Uncle Abbott’s system of knowledge production and display. He started to take the stuffed birds outside and posed them in the woods, finding in nature background environments that matched his selected bird; sometimes he painted his taxidermy sculptures to make them stand out in photographs. Sometimes these stood on their own as ‘invisible portraits’ of his theory that all such creatures existed so as to hide. Sometimes though, after he printed the negatives, he proceeded to cut up the prints into tiny bits. And then these bits became photographic feathers; these, in turn, became the medium for photocollages whose subject was in his mind ‘hidden dead birds’. Over time, he painted less; when he did, he had his son and his assistant do most of the work.

Uncle Abbott soon moved into cutting up the dead bird bodies themselves (and not just photographs thereof); he broke them down into bits.  The feathers he plucked from preserved study skins became a kind of natural paint. He embarked on a series of feather paintings, using the feathers from his dead birds to paint landscapes in which the birds themselves did not show up. These he rolled up and mailed to natural historians and artists on both sides of the Atlantic. He also hung them on the walls of galleries at the Pratt Institute and the Brooklyn Museum in the 1910s.

The descriptions of the feather paintings, which I first came upon in 2005, first inspired what became an increasingly consuming search for Uncle Abbott’s dead birds. I read through all of his correspondence and found numerous descriptions of the feather paintings as well as the painted, mounted taxidermied ducks he sent around the country; then I moved on to the memoirs of his students, the diary of his son; obituaries; sketches and newspaper clippings. Three years into my book project, Hide and Seek: Camouflage, Photography and the Media of Reconnaissance in which Uncle Abbott’s dead-bird epistemology featured prominently, I dreamed of these birds. I started making colour copies of his paintings and drawings, cutting out the birds and making my own collages. These I installed at an art space in Los Angeles, perhaps as a way to cope. I needed to find them: see them, touch them, and smell them.

I was driven not only to discover, but also to document his specimens in my own artistic media of choice – documentary photographs and experimental films. But I looked and looked and found nothing. No skins, no feathers, no disappearing ducks: nothing of the integuments of his epistemology of the invisible. I wrote letters to museum curators and archivists, made phone calls to relevant biological laboratories everywhere from upstate New York to Glasgow, Scotland. I followed up every lead I could find in Thayer’s haphazard records of birds sent out and various others’ records of specimens received. Everyone with whom I made contact seemed to think that what I was looking for sounded highly improbable – dead bird feather paintings? Painted taxidermy ducks that could be turned in circles with hand cranks? These were the birds whose material remains I hoped to attach to my story and embed in my art.

I wanted something extraordinary. I looked on two continents, and saw nothing. And then, several years gone by, I found a single specimen, looking about as ordinary as they come, secreted, it turned out, at the natural history museum just down the street from my office. An ornithology curator found it at the back of a drawer of owl study skins. A tell-tale accession tag including Uncle Abbott’s last name, and the place of the barred owl’s death: Dublin, New Hampshire.

This owl (Strix varia) has no eyes and likes to hide. Its eye sockets are puffed out by the same kind of lambs-wool wadding I once used to stuff my ballet shoes to keep my toes from bleeding. I realize now that I am glad this dead bird has no glass eyes. It appears unseeing and so somehow remains unseen.

 

Photograph by author.

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Its eye sockets are puffed out by the same kind of lambs-wool wadding I once used to stuff my ballet shoes to keep my toes from bleeding.