Courtesy of Cornell University

A Cedar Waxwing with berries created by Ann-Kathrin (Fritzi) Wirth during her time at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology through the Bartels Science Illustration Program.

May 10, 2022

The Art and Science of Birds

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Birds have long inspired artists to combine science with their artistic visions. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a long and distinguished history in both science and art, dating back to the early 1900s, when renowned ornithologist and artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes offered classes to students and the general public.

Before the development of photography, illustration was the primary method of scientific documentation. Still used to communicate key scientific discoveries today, Cornell’s course UNILWYL 1130: The Art and Science of Birds allows students to develop a personal artistic style and unique perspective as a way to approach scientific research from a more holistic perspective.

This Learning Where You Live course teaches students the fundamentals of avian anatomy as well as sketching methods, fostering an understanding of how science and art may complement one another in improving one’s life and studies. 

Students begin with the foundations of observational sketching to increase accuracy before moving on to watercolors, guided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s staff biological illustrator. Scientific lectures created by Cornell ornithologists are interwoven into art sessions, merging art and contemporary science to explore a range of related issues. The class’s intersection of science and art is crucial as students attempt to be global citizens in a constantly changing climate. 

Isaiah Scott ’25 took the course this semester. Combining two of his favorite subjects — birds and science — the class showed him how art and illustration are vital components in the field of ornithology and environmental science.

“I learned how to accurately draw birds by using gestural drawing, scaling with my pencil, and using negative space,” Scott said. 

His favorite piece is a detailed portrait of a Bearded Scrub Robin as he has to pay close attention to the detailed feathers and the distinction of its topography. 

“[UNILWYL 1130] sharpened my skills of bird illustration for future opportunities such as book illustrations or artist-in-residence programs,” Scott, who hopes to become a natural history illustrator, said.

Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology is a vast resource for any birder, not only in Ithaca but across the globe.

“Transforming science into action, I have seen the lab work hard to bring so many scientists, students and people from all walks of life in the process of generating new knowledge,” Savanah Chiodi ’25 said.