Current Exhibition: The Boundless and the Framed

Planning an exhibition about the representation and significance of birds in art means attempting to become bird experts – unfortunately I did not achieve this, but in my research I learned some interesting facts about a few species of birds and their symbolism in art.

Belted Kingfishers

Kingfishers spend most of the year alone until they pair up with a mating partner. They need access to bodies of water for feeding, and vertical earthen banks for nesting. They have an air of self-importance as they hover around in search of food – they hunt in clear water, allowing them to see prey below the surface. Some common habitats are streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, estuaries, and calm marine waters. Their diet consists mostly of fish including trout and sticklebacks, but they also eat crayfish and other crustaceans, mollusks, insects, amphibians, reptiles, young birds, small mammals, and berries. The male and female take turns digging the burrow, with males spending twice as much time digging as the females. Throughout the breeding season a layer of undigested fish bones and scales provide some insulation. The female nests for 27-29 days.

In Ancient Greece, the kingfisher was associated with mournful quality, stemming from the myth of Alcyone and her husband Ceyz who were turned into kingfishers by Zeus. In China, the kingfisher symbolizes fidelity, peace, grace, nobility, and conjugal devotion. In Christian art, the kingfisher symbolizes resurrection, stemming from the medieval belief that the bird annually molted its feathers.

The following work is by Alex Colville, entitled “Kingfisher”


Alex Colville “Kingfisher” (Serigraph, 68/70, purchase 2001). Copyright A.C. Fine Art Inc.

The Herring Gull

Typically called “Seagulls”, Herring Gulls are the most familiar gulls of North America. Herring Gulls’ habitat can be found on open water, intertidal pools and shallows, mud flats, landfills, picnic grounds, and fish-processing plants. They roost and hang around groups in large open areas that offer good visibility for spotting predators. Herring Gulls prey on fish, insects, smaller seabirds young and old, and eggs from other gulls. They also feed on mussels, crabs, sea urchins, and crayfish. On open water, they tend to follow fishermen in hopes of catching food. Several days before egg-laying, a pair of Gulls will line their nests or ‘depressions’ with vegetation, feathers, plastic, and other scavenged materials. The female nests for 45-50 days.

The First Nations peoples of the Bering Sea made bentwood hunting hats ornamented with gull feathers attached to grass, ivory walrus heads, and gull beaks – the hunters believed these animal attributes enhanced their abilities and became less human and bore birdlike when wearing the hat.

The following work is by Joseph Purcell, entitled “Two Birds”

Joseph Purcell Two Birds.jpg

Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds

The Ruby-throated hummingbird is eastern North America’s sole breeding hummingbird. They can be found in deciduous woodlands of Eastern North America and across the Canadian Prairies in old fields, forest-edges, meadows, orchards, and backyards. They feed on the nectar of red or orange tubular flowers such as cardinal flower, honeysuckle, jewelweed, red morning glory, etc. as well as hummingbird feeders and tree sap. Hummingbirds can also catch insects in midair or pull them out of spider webs. The nest is the size of a large thimble, and sits directly on top of a branch; it is made of thistle or dandelions and is held together with strands of spider silk or pine resin. The female stomps on the base to stiffen it, and shapes the rim by pressing and smoothing it with between her nest and chest. The exterior is camouflaged with moss and lichen. The female nests for 18-22 days.

In Mesoamerican art, hummingbirds are frequently paired with eagles and Hawks, all of which symbolize the sun and warfare. The flight of the hummingbird is further associated with the sun’s movement across the sky at the solstices. The Aztecs believed the sharp beak of the hummingbird mimicked weapons and bloodletting instruments; they were symbols for warriors, as they are territorial and aggressive. Their flight mimics that of an arrow, and were at times used by archers for luck with their aim.

The following work is by Gwen Hales, entitled “Hummingbird”.

Gwen Hales Hummingbirds.jpg

If you have any comments, join the conversation below!


Alexandra (Collections and Outreach Assistant, Summer 2017)


Works Cited:


Ball, Katherine M. Animal Motifs in Asian Art: An Illustrated Guide to their Meanings and Aesthetics. Minnesota, New York: Dover Publications, 2004.

Cornell University. “Belted Kingfisher”. All about Birds. 2015. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Cornell University. “Herring Gull”. All About Birds. 2015. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Cornell University. “Ruby-Throated Hummingbird”. All About Birds. 2015. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


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