Birds of a feather
Chico State museum examines avian-human connections
Adrienne Scott has loved birds virtually her whole life. As a child, she had flashcards of avian species; when her family took camping trips, she’d look to the treelines and listen for birdsong. As an adult, a museum curator in Chico, she’s become an avid bird-watcher, including trekking with the Altacal Audubon Society.
They never cease to surprise her.
A few weeks ago, her shopping complete at the Saturday farmers’ market, Scott returned to her car in the Lost Park parking lot along Big Chico Creek. Her cellphone buzzed; she returned a text message, put the phone down. She looked up from the driver’s seat and—ignoring the magnitude of the rain-swollen, fast-flowing waterway—focused on a scrub jay as it landed on a creekside rock.
The bird jumped in and out of ripples, “giving himself a bath,” she described, “taking such pleasure in this day—and it gave me such pleasure. I just stopped and watched this whole little vignette of life, happening far away, really, from the parking lot; but I had almost missed it because I was busy shopping and texting on my phone.”
That moment encapsulates the spirit of her museum’s new exhibition. Remarkable Lives: The Intertwined Worlds of Birds and Humans opened at Chico State’s anthropology museum during the Snow Goose Festival in late January. It’s a partnership between the festival, Audubon chapter and multiple university departments, running through the summer (see infobox).
About 20 students, most in professor Georgia Fox’s fall course on exhibit creation, contributed pieces. Ashlyn Weaver made a replica of a Hawaiian royal cape, covered in feathers, for a corner display on cultural heritage. William Stephen crafted a diorama depicting man-made causes of birds’ deaths: windmills, skyscrapers, roads, power lines, oil spills.
Victoria Davila, a recent Art Department alumna hired as artist-in-residence for the exhibition, designed feathery skins for a robotic Archaeopteryx fabricated by mechatronic engineering students. (The connection: “Dinosaurs are not extinct; we just call them birds,” Scott said.) Davila also etched a wall-mounted puzzle, placed in another exhibit, to help children learn about beaks; she made 20 paper birds via 3-D modeling that decorate the museum entrance.
In consultation with Audubon members, Assistant Curator Heather McCafferty put together an exhibit on local birds and birding that includes original writings and maps from John Cowan, a noted Pacific Flyway ornithologist. Having his works preserved in the university’s archives prompted Scott, McCafferty and Fox, the museum’s director, to choose this topic.
“There are multiple stories in here,” Scott said, “and each bird has its own remarkable life. We have them around us all the time [but] we don’t really pay that much attention to them; they’re in the background …
“But they’re really interwoven into our lives in so many ways,” McCafferty added.
“Every day, you hear a bird,” Scott continued. “Every day, there’s a bird in your backyard. But we haven’t been accountable for how our actions have interfered with their lives. Little by little, [now] we are.”
The exhibition explores an array of bird-human interrelationships. A field of anthropology, ethno-ornithology, covers this area; after research, McCafferty said, “it became very difficult to whittle down the number of topics.”
Students did so with their interests. Weaver, for instance, gravitated immediately toward culture. She’s second-generation Hawaiian, born and raised in Vacaville, working toward her master’s after receiving an undergraduate degree in Hawaiian language and history in Maui. As one of just three dozen Pacific Islanders on campus, she felt it was important to highlight her heritage.
“Birds represent the closest form you can get to the realms of the gods in the natural world,” Weaver explained. “They’re looked at like a heavenly type of figure.”
Terrestrially, they’ve long helped Hawaiians navigate at sea and locate food sources on the islands.
“Birds, in Hawaiian culture, are very prominent,” she said. “Feathers are everything over there.”
Weaver decided on a cape for a chief or chiefess as the best showcase piece. Her creation—comprising red, yellow and black feathers with a golden-rope neck piece—is a scale version, framed and wall-mounted; a full-size garment would extend to the feet.
Davila, who graduated last year, hadn’t incorporated birds into many of her works before getting this commission. Now she’s affectionately called “the bird lady” on campus and in the community. The paper models hanging at the museum constitute a third of those Davila made; she sold the others.
Walking through Remarkable Lives, seeing everything all together, Davila was struck most by the perils birds face.
“The exhibit in the back about pollution really broke my heart,” she said. “I love birds, and thinking about the pollution, and the fires that make birds have to leave, and the environment—I want to do more.”
The exhibition suggests means—efforts by Altacal Audubon and the concept of citizen science—in which anyone can participate in research and preservation.
“We don’t really think we’re necessarily changing the world here,” Scott said, “but hearts and minds can become aware of the ways in which you can make a difference in your backyard.”