A Tribute to Birds and Their Impact on Humanity

The Wonder of Birds exhibition explores the long-standing cultural influence of our feathered friends.

Who knew? Next month marks the 100th year anniversary of the passenger pigeon's extinction. While it was once one of the most densely populated birds on earth, the last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. Bless her beak.

The Wonder of Birds, an exhibition showcasing roughly 220 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculptures, taxidermy works, textiles and archaeology objects explores the impact of all sorts of winged creatures. Until September 14, the Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery wants to show how influenced by birds we really are—we all seem to have a feather pillow, a dream catcher, or a chicken sandwich from our feathered friends.

"Passenger Pigeon," (Ectopistes migratorius) taxidermy, Norwich Castle Museum

Probably the most compelling piece in the show is a photograph from the legendary wildlife photographer Eric Hosking. "He pioneered many techniques to capture birds, and owls were his particular favourite" said Francesca Vanke, keeper of art and curator of decorative art, who co-curated the show with natural history curator David Waterhouse. While Hosking started out photographing owls in the 1930s, he had developed a trick flash by the time the Heraldic Barn Owl was photographed in 1948. 

At the time, high-speed electronic flash bulbs were only entering the market and he found an inventive way to use them to showcase birds flying at night: The flash was activated automatically by an infrared switch trip, rather than by hand.

Eric Hosking (1909-1991), Heraldic Barn Owl, 1948. Photograph, 28 x 42 cm, © The Eric Hosking Charitable Trust

The Suffolk-based bird got its name for its majestic looks, with its wings out like a medieval crest. "They managed to capture that dramatic pose because the owl set the flash off itself," said Vanke. "It had just captured the mouse for its dinner."

The exhibition, a mixture of a lot of wings in a big medieval castle, combines art and natural history in the same way as the museum's big exhibitions about rocks and flowers. "We thought birds lent itself quite well to the same approach," said Vanke. "The show was created to show all sorts of human relationships with birds." 

Maker unknown, Pectoral depicting a human-bird figure, Colombia, c. 1000-1600. Gold and copper alloy (Tumbaga), 30 x 20.5 x 2 cm, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Going way back, the oldest piece in the show is a stone duck from Babylon, hand-carved 4,000 years ago. There is a shaman's necklace from Colombia showing a half-bird, half-human figure worn in religious ceremonies, as well as a sassy hat of pheasant feathers from the 1960s. It isn't all fashion feathers, though. The exhibition also explores the deaths of thousands of birds which sparked the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Six sections highlight different aspects of birds, from wetland birds in landscapes to predators and prey. There's a section for migrant birds that coast across the sea, from the Arctic to Africa, and one devoted to all things exotic, including a rare, early taxidermy paradise parrot, which used to fly around Oceania. 

Frederick Strange (1826-1854), Adult male Paradise Parrot, Psephotus pulcherrimus, Morton Bay, Queensland, Australia (1851), extinct since 1927. Taxidermy specimen, 20.5 x 9 x 20 cm, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery/Norfolk Museums Service © Norfolk Museums Service

There are also more recent pieces, like Spring Cuckoo, a metal bird sculpture by Harriet Mead, and a depiction of a giant hornbill skeleton by artist and author Katrina van Grouw. The passenger pigeon is placed alongside a laughing owl, paintings of a dodo, a fossil cast of early bird Archaeopteryx, and a replica of an elephant bird's egg. "We tried to cover the widest area we can," said Vanke, "to show how culturally important they are."

There is one peculiar piece by Russian artist Viktor Nikolaevich Deni, a propaganda poster that says, "The fascist crow has discovered that he is no eagle." While the eagle is used to symbolize power and fascism, a squawking crow is being strangled by a soldier's hand.

Viktor Nikolaevich Deni (1893-1946), The Fascist Crow has Discovered, That to us He is no Eagle!, U.S.S.R, 1944. Print on paper, 56 x 41 cm, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

Other pieces came about by mistake. There is a cracked egg courtesy of Charles Darwin, who collected it on a trip to Uruguay in the 1830s. The tinamou egg (a relative to the ostrich) was actually crushed by Darwin. "He stuffed it into a box that was too small," said Vanke. "And broke it himself, basically. It is personally cracked by Charles Darwin."

Since Norwich Castle has over 20,000 birds in their collection, it was tough to edit it down for the show. But in the end, they went for those birds that are most symbolic. "They are the most distant creatures from us because they fly and we can't, but they're quite close to us, as we see them more than most mammals," said Vanke. "We have a feather pillow or a chicken sandwich for lunch. They're closer to us than one might think."