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Finding Feathered Friends

For most, Audubon is a household name, associated with nature guides, birds, and the National Audubon Society: named after John James Audubon, the famed nineteenth-century ornithologist and painter whose ambitious goal was to create a complete pictorial record of all bird species in North America. Audubon's Birds of America (printed from 1827-1838) contains 435 life-size watercolors of North American birds, produced from hand-engraved plates.

Less known are the documentary practices behind these illustrations: "the self-taught naturalist-painter killed thousands of birds in his day," after which he would stuff and arrange using a series of wires and threads, sort of like a marionette, to manipulate the birds into a more "natural" pose, where they would sit for his painting.

Audubon's morbid process produced beautiful and life-like paintings, but birds are depicted a bit more materially in his predecessor in bird illustrations, Il Bestiario Barocco.

In comparison to Audubon's massive paintings, which measure roughly 39 by 26 inches (Really Big), the birds in Il Bestiario Barocco are mounted on hand-made paper that is 12 by 18 ¾ inches (sketchbook/art paper size).

Il Bestiario Barocco (The Baroque Bestiary)

Commonly known as the "Feather Book," Il Bestiario Barocco was created in 1618 by Dionisio Minaggio, the seventeenth-century chief gardener of the state of Milan in Italy. The book is currently held by McGill University’s Rare Books and Special Collections in Quebec, Canada.

The Feather Book may be the oldest surviving collection of bird feathers as bird specimens.

The Feather Book itself is a bound book of 156 bird illustrations, crafted entirely with feathers, beaks, claws, and even the skin underneath the feathers in some areas (ew!). The individual birds were put together on paper and cut out, then mounted on support sheets of thicker and larger paper. Thankfully, the eyes are just made of paper...

Aside from the birds, the Feather Book also includes illustrations of hunters, tradesmen, musicians and stock characters from the form of Italian dramatic comedy that was widely popular (in Italy and abroad) from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, Commedia del'Arte.

It is unclear why this book was created, but the McGill Library proposes a few possibilities: a project to keep busy during the winter; a creative way to use the feathers plucked from birds used in meals; or, the project may have been commissioned by the Governor.

The entire provenance (or, record of ownership) of the Feather Book is also unknown. There is no information on the book's whereabouts from 1618 until the mid-1700s, when it found its way into the collection of Taylor White, an English judge and natural history aficionado. Finally, around 1920 Dr. Gerhard Lomer, a McGill Librarian, purchased the Feather Book.

Two birds, one...lizard?

There are also physical elements of the features around the birds: the Woodcock (left) is shown eating a chameleon, but only half of the skin is still present on the page; another illustration features the actual bark of the tree depicted nearby.

Milan was part of the Spanish empire at this time, so the Spaniards were familiar with the feather art of Central and South America, thanks to their empirical conquests of indigenous peoples and their lands.

Additionally, the McGill University library speculates that the more exotic birds featured in the Feather Book, such as the Egyptian Vulture (right), or the Amazon Parrot (below), possibly came from visiting sailors’ accounts.

Beaks, Feathers, and Talons, oh my!

One wonders about the acquisition of the bird parts that the Feather Book incorporates—beaks, feathers, talons.

As there is no evidence illuminating the reason for creating this book, it could very well have been completed using a methodology similar to that of Audubon—killing multiple birds in order to make a more detailed illustration, and in the Feather Book’s case, a more authentic one.

One of the most interesting theories behind the creation of the Feather Book speculates that the gardeners were resourceful and used the leftovers from the birds cooked for meals, which had to be plucked of feathers, and talons and beaks were not suitable for human consumption.

This begs the question: would they have eaten the more exotic birds, such as the Amazonian parrot?

Parrot: It's What's For Dinner

The practice of psittacophagy, or parrot eating, is intimately tied to colonialism, cannibalism, orientalism, exoticism, and…culinary practice?

In "The Parrot Eaters: Psittacophagy in the Renaissance and Beyond," Bruce Boehrer provides an astonishing historical overview in his investigation of how and why psittacophagy became a strict prohibition to European colonizers, and thus how and why we still uphold that prohibition.

Alexander the Great invaded the Indian subcontinent in 327 B.C., thus introducing parrots to Europe, where they immediately became popular pets. According to the writer Aelian, Indians did not eat the native parrots because the Brahmins considered them holy, primarily because the parrot is the only bird that gives the most convincing imitation of human speech” (46).

Parrot” refers to 402 species of birds, including Macaws, Amazons, lovebirds, cockatoos, cockatiels, and parakeets, to name a few.

Two perfect specimens of the parrot subspecies, the parakeet, or budgie: Iago and Chocobo.

(Friends, not food.)

So, why the prohibition on psittacophagy?

Boehrer argues that before 1492, psittacophagy was the norm, “interrupted by the relative scarcity of parrots in the Middle Ages,” and a practice that could have resumed with the European conquest of the Americas. However, by the 1600s, Westerners thought of the birds "as pets...zoological marvels and...annoyances, but seldom as dinner” (46).

Nonetheless, parrots have been consumed by humans, and Western humans, at that. We must, as Boehrer argues, interrogate the “avoidance of parrot eating" rather than parrot eating itself. He boils it down (pun not intended) to two categories: psittacophagy as “ritual” or as “conspicuous consumption” (48).

As parrots are native to all continents except Europe, they quickly became an exotic trade item after introduced (48). In Roman times, however, the parrot was considered a high-class culinary ingredient rather than a last resort. However, in the Renaissance world, the Roman tendency for psittacophagy was seen as something revolting, and distinctly Eastern.

Psittacophagy, and Cannibalism: Match Made in Heaven?

Soon, though, the European exploration of the New World associated parrots with “American barbarism” (50). Parrots were plentiful in the Americas, and thus staples of the indigenous peoples’ diet. Nevertheless, European travelers/colonizers consistently write about it as a horrific act, only committed on long voyages in the face of starvation.

Earlier colonial travel narratives resulted in the association “between psittacophagy and American cannibalism,” grouping the supposed eating habits of the indigenous peoples as one. Eventually, “parrots and human bones serve[d] equally as markers of the New World exotic.” The relationship between parrot eating cements the “opposition between the New World and Old World social practice” (56).

With Renaissance exploration, parrots quickly became favored pets in England. As they populated parlors, they soon signified “fools, women, effete foreigners, and people of color” (57).

This transformation from food to friend as “act[ing] out as comedy what the European conquest of the new World performs as tragedy: a revision of… meanings and uses” (58). Despite the fact that psittacophagy became to be associated with barbarism and cannibalism, this dietary practice can be found in ancient Rome.

Our brief venture into the parrot's revealing status as a culinary object can be darkly summarized with the statement that “the European presence in America..turned both Indians and parrots into endangered species (57),” quite a chilling conclusion.

Regardless of this brief (and possibly disturbing?) venture into the representation of our feathered friends throughout history, we definitely consider them "friends," not "food"!

Further feathered reading and viewing:

* For a closer look and detailed historical context on the Feather Book, check out:

* Dr. Carla Benzan (Video)

Video of her research on Il Bestiario Barocco

* Eleanor McLean, Blacker-Wood Librarian (Article)

* Related Readings:

* Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbanks, Smarthistory (Article)

* A conversation with Dr. Kilroy-Ewbanks and Dr. Beth Harris (Video)

* Cornell Bird Academy (Article)

* Johanna Hecht, Met Art Museum. (Artwork)

* Dr. Claudia Brittenham, Aztecs at Mexicolore (Article)

* Allison Meier, Hyperallergic. (Article)

* Alicja Gluszek, Daily Art Magazine (Article)



Arielle Raymos was born in St. Augustine, Florida, but spent most of her life with a veritable zoo of rescued dogs, cats, and birds in Manchester, Tennessee.

Arielle is a first-year PhD student in literary studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She graduated with a BA in English from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, and an MA in English Literature & Theory from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.

Her three main passions in life are Lorraine Hansberry, Limp Bizkit, and her 1997 Honda Odyssey van. She has also been described as "the leading scholar of 80's detective television shows." At any given moment, she is probably watching her complete boxset of Magnum P.I. (1980-1988).


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