Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  10 (1885), 405–16.

Decorative Sentiment in Birds

James C Beard



Relevant illustrations:

eng. [7]


Ornithology, Aesthetics, Sex, Darwinism, Human Species, Animal Behaviour, Light, Gender, Architecture, Naturalists, Anthropomorphism, Instinct

People mentioned:

Charles Waterton

    Asserts that the 'feathered family' possess a 'love of the beautiful' which is the 'primary cause of the extraordinary change which comes upon the male birds at the period of courtship' when the 'male bird endeavor[s] to gain the favour of the coquettish female by exhibiting, by every device, every one of his new-found beauties of person, voice, and motion' (405), thereby offering 'a pretty counterpart of the actions of the male human animal under similar circumstances' (405–06). There was once a time when male birds did not have this aesthetic sense, but 'he found that the chance possession by any of his fellows of graces of person, voice, or action gained for them speedy favor from the females, and thus the love of the beautiful eventually brought about its existence, inasmuch as such birds as lacked beauty failed to please, and failing to please, failed to find wives'. Above all, it is in its 'architectural efforts' in nest-building that 'the bird most fully realizes the true decorative sentiment which struggles within it for an outlet' and gives 'expression of its artistic feeling'. (406) Gives several examples of notable forms of nest-building, including that of the Indian baya (Nelicurvius baya) which catches 'the living sparks of which there are myriads in the tropics' and affixes the 'fire-fly' to the clay of which its nest is built and 'lights up the little home with its phosphorescent glow'. By this means the 'patient little mother has light enough to cheer her during the long dark night', while 'one or more of the animated diamonds are fastened to the exterior, there to glitter and flash for the delectation of the outside world'. Although the reader 'might well be excused for doubting', corroboration of the baya's 'marvellous intelligence' has been provided by William Jones. (408) Reflects that in most cases, 'to the greater honor of the fair sex, the female is the architect and master mechanic, while the male is only a journeyman builder' (410). Also notes that 'our own Baltimore oriole' exhibits such an 'expertness [...] in interweaving its materials [...] that, according to the naturalist Wilson, one old lady, to whom he showed a nest, seriously proposed having the bird taught to darn stockings' (411). Even more impressively, 'one of the most extraordinary facts in natural history', recently 'made known to the world' by the 'naturalist, Dr. Bessari', is the 'highly decorated house and grounds [...] built and [...] laid out' by the gardener bird (Amblyornis inornata) of Papua, which displays an 'architectural and artistic genius' (412). Concludes that 'many acts of birds which have hitherto been ascribed to chance, or to some particular phase of instinct, as that of concealment, for example, are really dictated, if by nothing higher, at least by a self-conscious love of the beautiful' (415–16).

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