Bay Nature magazineSpring 2023

Art and Design

An Artist Goes Bird-Swatching

March 22, 2023

Imagine a pigeon: What do you see?

Even charitable brains might pigeonhole these birds—sometimes called “rats with wings”—as a drab gray. Their ubiquity in urban life has unfairly lumped them in with visions of disease and filth. While we’re wearing those grime-tinged glasses, it’s easy to be blind to the blue undertone of the bird’s signature gray or the shimmering iridescent green and purple of its throat feathers. The true colors of a rock dove, also known as a rock pigeon (Columba livia), were brought to my attention by artist Christopher Reiger and his “field guides,” which are on view at the Laguna Environmental Center in Santa Rosa until April 28. 

Rock Dove Field Guide. (Art by Christopher Reiger)

Each field guide is a two-foot-tall poster profiling the colors of a single bird species’ plumage, beak, legs, and eyesin an abstracted format. Reiger looks at a bird in profile, isolates the colors, and presents them in a column of color layers, each reflecting the percentage observable on the bird. The project began in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Reiger, looking for inspiration and motivation in a 20-year-old sketchbook, came across a line of text: “paint chip versions of birds?” And indeed, Reiger’s field guides more closely resemble paint swatches than anything you’ll find in your favorite birding field guide.

In creating these swatches, Reiger relies on design decisions we could characterize as arbitrary. For example, why does he analyze birds in profile? This can leave out colors on a bird’s underside or folded in its wings. And why are the colors stacked by percentage size rather than the head-to-talon order seen on the bird? But these seemingly capricious choices are all part of the concept, which Reiger says is “both a celebration and a critique of taxonomy.” 

From a distance, taxonomy is about making sense of the world, classifying and grouping like-organisms. But up close, the practice is “kind of a hopeless mess” that’s “always in flux,” says Reiger, a self-professed “taxonomy geek.” Sometimes he feels tinges of outrage when scientists split a species into two species based on differences only observable in the genome. To poke fun at the classification system, the posters point “to the absurdity that I’m saying ‘this is that bird,’” Reiger says. 

He has set for himself an intentionally impossible task—you can’t distill an entire species to a single set of colors. Reiger is the first to acknowledge the particular variations within a species and that a species evolves over time, though his posters do account for sexual dimorphism. The impossibility is not unique to his classification system, he argues, but inherent in the process of classification. Whether classifying based on color or “subtle morphological or vocalization differences,” he explains, “you set up your rules, then you stick by those rules, and that’s the best you can do.”

Pigeon. (Photo by Russell Harry Lee via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Reiger says his process is “transforming the bird,” so that the classification creates an image that “is no longer the bird that we know in our mind’s eye.” All classification systems encourage us to imagine species according to the system’s own rules and procedures. The biological species concept, which defines a species by their members’ ability to breed with one another, tells us that a Saint Bernard and a Yorkshire terrier are the same species (Canis familiaris), while western meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta) and eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) are different species despite their near-identical appearance. For better or worse, the biological-species concept asks us to pay attention to breeding, and the Reiger field guides ask us to pay attention to color.

His field guides also prod us to think about how and why we classify and perhaps to look at birds a little differently afterward. Reiger sees turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) every day, but through his classification system he began to see them differently, noticing colors that he describes as deep indigo ink, coffee, and dark chocolate, rather than simply seeing a black bird. —Matthew Harrison Tedford

About the Author

Matthew Harrison Tedford is an arts writer focused on ecology, history, and politics. Based in San Francisco, his work has appeared on KQED, Hyperallergic, SF Weekly, Art Practical, and elsewhere.

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