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1911 31 The Home Of The Heron 1911 31 The Home Of The Heron

Birdwatching in the Museum

Staff Picks


Birds are mysterious creatures, made all the more so by their constant presence.

We think we know them simply because we see them and hear them every day. If you live in Chicago, that means sparrows, pigeons, robins, starlings, and doves, not to mention finches, cardinals, crows, grackles, red-winged blackbirds, swallows, swifts, geese, gulls, kestrels, peregrine falcons (if you’re lucky), and many others, and that’s not taking into account migrating birds. Here are a few things you might not know about our hollow-boned neighbors:

  • Birds are descended from a dinosaur called the theropod and are considered the only living dinosaurs.
  • Alligators and crocodiles are more closely related to birds than to other reptiles.
  • There are just over 11,000 species around the world, and more than half are in decline.
  • Birds can pass along information to their offspring as well as their group—so don’t make any of them mad. (Have you seen The Birds?)
  • Cuckoos and cowbirds are obligate brood parasites—birds that lay their eggs in other birds’ nests.
  • Starlings, an invasive species from Europe, are related to myna birds and often mimic the sounds other birds.
  • The goose was one of the first birds to be domesticated—and now they won’t let us forget it.
  • Local fact: the official bird of Chicago is the peregrine falcon, and there are now over 20 nesting pairs in the city alone.

Many birds have also found their way into works of art in the museum. After silently stalking the galleries, five birdwatching staff members share their favorite sightings.

Not your average field guide

Who are these skulking, cloaked figures? Even seasoned birders—well-versed in obsessive identification—might not recognize the back of the head of this male duck.

Roni Horn

This two-by-four-foot diptych compels us to explore the shifting nature of perception and identity: without its habitat or most obvious features, and at a scale nearly four times larger than life, this duck escapes easy recognition. We know we’re seeing something even as we exhaust the possibilities of what that something might be. Artist Roni Horn takes us birding without binoculars.

Harlequin ducks are most abundant in cold northern waters and those off the coast of Iceland, where Horn lives for much of the year. Though they don’t visit the Midwest often, the rough chop of midwinter Lake Michigan occasionally draws a Harlequin or two. If you see one, consider leaving the field guide behind and embracing the experience sparked by Untitled No. 2: a continuous pursuit of identity, uncertain and ever-changing.

—Dan Meyer, assistant director, Donor Stewardship

Mates for the afterlife

In this small gilt-bronze weight, two birds nestle against each other. Their beaks gently touch, claws interlocked, and tail feathers intertwined. On the reverse side, their wings overlap as if they are cuddling together.


Use the zoom tool in the upper righthand corner of the image to explore the exquisite details.

This intimate and tender scene tells a love story from the remote past. In Chinese art and design, the motif of a pair of birds often symbolizes love and romance. This object from the Tang dynasty likely functioned as a sleeve weight. Though the precise purpose and meaning of sleeve weights in ancient Chinese tombs are still undetermined, they may have been used to weigh down the deceased’s burial garment so that the sleeves didn’t move around during the funerary rites or over time in the tomb. As such, these birds may have borne witness to a couple’s enduring love that transcended the boundary of life and death.

—Sizhao Yi, Rhoades Foundation Curatorial Fellow, Arts of Asia

Fowl Play

This still life of an upside-down plucked fowl reminds me of a gruesome crucifixion, much like the one painted by the Northern Renaissance artist Matthias Grünewald for the Isenheim Altarpiece.

Chaim Soutine

The bird’s thighs outstretch like human arms. The blue wings resemble smoke swirling into the air. The carcass looks spatchcocked, its flesh rendered by the swiftest of brush strokes, a deeply layered smattering of yellows, greens, and oranges, stippled with reds and pinks, punctuated by a tuft of black hackle feathers. This was one of a series of carcass paintings by Chaim Soutine, a Belarusian expressionist painter who worked in Paris in the 1920s. He’d been inspired by 17th-century paintings of Dutch market scenes. The practice of keeping an animal carcass fresh in his studio terrorized his neighbors. When Marc Chagall once witnessed blood pooling out beneath Soutine’s door, he sprinted out of the building, shouting, “Someone has killed Soutine!”

To me, this painting speaks to the taut relationship between immanence and transcendence, suffering and ecstasy, sustenance and sacrifice.

—Ryan M. Pfeiffer, technician, Collections and Loans

wings of light

If you zoom into the middle panel on this stained glass window, you will see a muted purple bird, wings fluttering. I find the bird to be a calming, eternal image.

Marc Chagall

The painter Marc Chagall, who was Jewish, fled from Europe during World War II. He created America Windows for the Art Institute in celebration of the US Bicentennial. As the windows are meant to celebrate the freedoms enjoyed by Americans, some people believe the bird is meant to be an eagle, our national symbol, hovering in the sky above the Statue of Liberty.

This panel of stained glass is a swirl of vibrant blues and features a fluttering purple bird

But Chagall’s images—meant to capture the spirit of the arts—are whimsical and playful. To me, this vibrant bird is a dove of peace, rising above the chaos of humanity. It reminds me of when I’m walking in the city and so much is going on around me, and then I notice a sparrow just going about its business. It’s like a little connection to nature and serenity. 

—Violet A. Jaffe, director of Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, Research Center

flying in place

I often see herons on my walks along the Chicago River, especially Great Blues. From a distance it’s easy to recognize their shape, their presence. They’re so large and distinctive, almost prehistoric in their aspect. Though it’s always a surprise to see them, they never feel out of place.

George Inness

The 19th-century painter George Inness, known for his realistic landscapes, sought to look beneath the surface of nature, especially later in his life. He wasn’t interested in rendering details but in withholding them, in paring things down to their essence. So there are no blue feathers, no yellow eyes, on this solitary heron. It’s just a hazy silhouette, like the trees behind it. The dusky light doesn’t fall from the sky, creating shadows, but seems to glow from within. In The Home of the Heron, Inness creates a living entity, a world complete unto itself. His heron is simply the part that raises its head, spreads its wings, and flies.

—Paul Jones, associate director, Communications

Explore more birds in the Art Institute’s collection. And learn more about Chicago’s nesting peregrines and the story behind their return.



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