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Avian Illuminations

A Cultural History of Birds

An exquisitely illustrated journey through the complex and crucial relationship between humans and birds.
Avian Illuminations examines the many roles birds have played in human society, from food, messengers, deities, and pets, to omens, muses, timekeepers, custodians, hunting companions, decorative motifs, and, most importantly, embodiments of our aspirations. Boria Sax narrates the history of our relationships with a host of bird species, including crows, owls, parrots, falcons, eagles, nightingales, hummingbirds, and many more. Along the way, Sax describes how birds’ nesting has symbolized human romance, how their flight has inspired inventors throughout history, and he concludes by showing that the interconnections between birds and humans are so manifold that a world without birds would effectively mean an end to human culture itself. Beautifully illustrated, Avian Illuminations is a superb overview of humanity’s long and rich association with our avian companions.

456 pages | 102 color plates, 105 halftones | 6 1/4 x 9 1/4 | © 2021

Biological Sciences: Natural History

History: General History

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"Birds can go wherever they want, muses Sax in Avian Illuminations, his wide-ranging, wistful history of human connections with the bird world, from the first drawings on cave walls to Rachel Carson’s dire warnings. Some birds may beat their wings, some might just prefer to let themselves be carried by the wind. It is almost impossible, writes Sax, 'to imagine this sort of freedom.'"

Christoph Irmscher | Wall Street Journal

 "Captivating and graced with exquisite illustrations, Sax’s Avian Illuminations blends history, folklore, art, literature, and ornithology to explain why birds are such an integral part of human dreams and aspirations. . . . Avian Illuminations, with its rich content and glorious illustrations, educates, entertains, and aims a body-blow to human pride with its reminder that when birds reigned as dinosaurs, human ancestors were still 'relatively small marsupial-like balls of fur.'"

Foreword Reviews, Starred Review

"Sax says his overall purpose in the book is 'to show how intimately our bonds with birds are bound up in the matrix of ideas, practices, fears, and hopes that make up what we call "human civilization."' In fact, he believes 'these interconnections are so profound . . . that a world without birds would effectively mean the end of humankind, even if we continued to pass on some approximation of our DNA.' To this end, he draws on a rich assemblage of examples from ornithology, history, folklore, literature, popular culture, and graphic arts to weave together what he calls his 'bird’s nest' of facts, stories, myths, and images."

Jeremy Mynott | Times Literary Supplement

"Beautifully illustrated, Avian Illuminations is a superb overview of humanity’s long and rich association with our avian companions." 

Birdbooker Report

"A wide-ranging, profound, and captivating book on the relationships between humans and birds... Sax has assembled a prodigious amount of information from ornithology, folklore, history, literature, and art to show that birds 'have had many roles in human society.' Most importantly, they act as 'embodiments of our aspirations'—what we hope to be or wish not to be."

Winnipeg Free Press

"Speaking of birds, I spent an hour recently . . . paging through a wonderful book: Avian Illuminations: A Cultural History of Birds by Boria Sax. It focuses on the role of birds in history, art, philosophy, religion. Think about how much birds figure into our world and imagination. The Phoenix arising from the ashes. The Thunderbird of Pacific Northwest Haida culture. The Harpy of Greek mythology."

Jim Chatfield | Akron Beacon Journal

"The book examines birds’ many roles in human society, myth-making, and folklore. . . . The book is full of gorgeous illustrations of birds in art and avian symbolism. . . . This book would be a marvelous gift for a birdwatcher or budding ornithologist in your home."

Andrew Rowan | Wellbeing International

"This lavishly illustrated book is quite an ambitious undertaking. Sax covers a wide range of themes, from birds in mythology, in history, religion, and in art, to birds in the future. A whistle-stop tour of our historical relationship with birds from the dawn of humanity to the present."

Morning Star

"Sax's latest book, Avian Illuminations: A Cultural History of Birds, is a must-read. I had no idea about the many roles birds have played in different human societies, ranging from food, messengers, deities, and pets, to omens, muses, timekeepers, custodians, hunting companions, decorative motifs, and, most importantly, embodiments of our aspirations. . . . [An] illuminating and beautifully illustrated book."

Marc Bekoff | Psychology Today

"In this eclectic work, Sax provides a 'cultural history of birds' that is actually more a cultural history of humans in their interactions with birds, whether used as adornment or food and employed as messengers, pets, and art objects... Selected chapters may fascinate, whether for their detail or because birds are revealed to be so much a part of the fabric of human life throughout history."


"Magnificently illustrated, this is a superb overview of our long and rich association with our feathered friends."

Alauda Journal

“The wonderful Avian Illuminations traces in rich and fascinating detail the cultural relationships between humans and birds through history, philosophy, religion, and art. This is a book for difficult times—it entertains, educates, elucidates, and, in its assessment of what might be necessary to repair a damaged world, gives us hope.”

Esther Woolfson, author of "Corvus: A Life with Birds" and "Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species"

“Sax has long been my most trusted guide to understanding the complex relationships between humans and animals. In Avian Illuminations . . . he weaves a complex portrait of the symbolic richness of our portrayals of birds throughout history and myth.”

Ceridwen Dovey, author of "Blood Kin" and "Only the Animals"

“A beautifully written intellectual treat that will delight anyone interested in the feathered creatures we share our world with.”

Hal Herzog, author of "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals"

"Birds have provided models in almost every aspect of human culture. Their songs inspired our music; their courtship rituals, our dance; their plumage, our fashion. . . . Avian illuminations by Sax covers the vast range of practices that diverse cultures have taken from birds with extraordinary thoroughness. It also goes beyond listing the colorful array of practices and motifs in isolation to show how they have provided much of the emotional and intellectual foundation of human culture."

Roberto Marchesini, director, Centro Studi Filosofia Postumanista (Center for Posthuman Philosophy), author of "Over the Human: Post-humanism and the Concept of Animal Epiphany"

"A fascinating exploration of those ecstatic moments when a human becomes enraptured by contemplation of a bird—moments that, as Sax explains, can approach a religious level of intensity. I never imagined that birds had occupied so many roles in human lives and imaginings and through such a deep swath of history. An inspiring and fascinating read."

Clive Wynne, professor of psychology and animal studies, University of Arizona, coauthor of "Animal Cognition" and author of "Dog is Love"

"In Avian Illuminations, Sax, with the deep probing intellect of a renaissance scholar, reveals how human culture has been informed and shaped by birds. His history covers thousands of years and has something special for everyone, whether a poet, artist, historian, folklorist, falconer, or birder."

John Marzluff, author of "Welcome to Subirdia," "Gifts of the Crow," and "In Search of Meadowlarks"

"Avian Illuminations is a gorgeous—and heavy—book. . . . Beautifully written and drawing deeply on ornithology, history, religion, and mythology, Avian Illuminations is a book to be savored, not just read."

Fortean Times



“I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea.”—W. B. Yeats, ‘The White Birds’
At a pond in the forest, a bird casts off her feathered skin and becomes a woman. A man sees her bathing, falls totally in love, and hides the skin so that she will be unable to resume her avian form and fly away. She agrees to marry him. They have children, and for many years they live together in apparent happiness. One day she finds the pelt, puts it on to become a bird again and flies away. This is the basic ‘swan maiden tale’, and there are hundreds of variants throughout the world. In Scandinavian versions the wife is generally a swan, but she is a crane in tales from Japan and a dove in ones from the Near East.
Sometimes the genders are reversed, in which case the story is like ‘Beauty and the Beast’. There are many legends in Northern Europe of a swan knight, from whom several aristocratic houses claim to be descended. In one, Princess Beatrix of Cleves looks out over the Rhine and sees a white swan with a golden chain around its neck pulling a small boat in which stands a knight. She immediately falls in love with the knight, and they are soon married. They live happily together and have several children, but the knight warns Beatrix never to ask about his family or his origins. One day she carelessly asks him if he will eventually tell his children where he came from. He then takes leave of his family, summons his swan and boat, gets in and vanishes into the distance on the Rhine. Very probably, the knight himself was originally a swan.
These animal paramour tales are about the things we hide from loved ones and even from ourselves. But the main reason why such tales are so widely disseminated is that their foundation is a common experience. When looking at a swan in flight or on the water, you can momentarily feel a profound sense of intimacy with it. Then, as it disappears into the distance, you remember that you are excluded from its domain. This is what I call an ‘avian illumination’ – an intense identification of a person, or group of persons, with counterparts among birds. The difference between human being and animal begins to fall away, if only momentarily, and the person may then sadly realize that he is grounded.
Flight has made birds seem blessed and, in a very literal way, close to heaven. This is, in perhaps all cultures, an attribute of sages and saints. Mircea Eliade has written that the ‘ability to turn into a bird is the common property of all kinds of shamanism, not only the Turko-Mongol but also the Arctic, American, Indian, and Oceanian’. Myths and legends constantly tell of transformations of people into birds. Angels embody the human dream of becoming one with birds, not only through their wings but through the ­owing, brightly coloured robes that often extend like feathered tails behind them. They even sing like birds. In Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions angels also have assumed essentially the same role as prophetic birds in Greece and Rome, as messengers between God, or the gods, and human beings.
I once watched two blue jays mobbing a hawk, which was perched on a dead branch beside a stream. The hawk had no doubt invaded their territory and they probably had a nest of chicks nearby. The jays circled the raptor’s head and even dived recklessly beneath her beak, as though daring her to pounce. For a while the hawk remained completely motionless. Then she raised her wings, slowly spread them, ­flapped a few times and hurried away. After the hawk had left, the jays seemed to have disappeared as well, but then I glimpsed one a minute later passing quietly overhead. This was a drama of life and death, yet, for the birds, something that might happen any day.
In Melville’s Moby-Dick, the seaman Ishmael, who is the author’s alter ego, tells of seeing an albatross for the first time. The albatross had become entangled with the ropes of his ship and fallen to the deck. He writes that, ‘it uttered cries, as some King’s ghost in supernatural distress. through its inexpressible, strange eyes methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God.’ He gazed at the bird in utter amazement, lost in a reverie and unaware of how long had passed. Finally he asked a fellow sailor about the creature, to be casually told that it was not some supernatural being but a rather familiar bird.
The Canadian novelist Graeme Gibson saw a gyrfalcon perched high on a boulder in the Canadian Arctic suddenly descend in pursuit of a passing raven. The latter, which was slower but more agile, constantly rose, fell and twisted in the air. At times it seemed close to being caught but always managed to elude its pursuer. A second raven appeared, poised to intervene if its companion was caught, and a third one circled above. Finally, the gyrfalcon gave up and returned to its perch. The experience was, in Gibson’s words, ‘close to rapture’. Nevertheless, as Gibson explains, such events can neither be predicted nor entirely recaptured, for we are not aware of them until they are over and self-consciousness has returned. Gibson at least came away with a story of a gyrfalcon and three ravens, but sometimes there is almost nothing to tell. You have seen a pileated woodpecker and feel that the experience is special, but you cannot explain why.

Avian illuminations are often found in the work of poets, for example ‘Th‚e Windhover’ (kestrel) by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which he dedicated ‘to Christ our Lord’:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dáwn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rólling level underneath him steady áir, and stríding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing . . .

The sighting of a mammal or reptile – however beautiful, rare or rich in symbolism – hardly ever generates such exhilaration, which at times approaches religious ecstasy. This sense of cosmic significance is mostly unique to the human relationship with birds.
Not all avian illuminations are so dramatic or intense, and they may even be below the threshold of consciousness. But even a momentary identification with a bird in the wild can direct us beyond an everyday, anthropocentric perspective to reveal an exhilarating range of previously unsuspected emotional, perceptual and philosophic possibilities. Such encounters have moved people to interpret the behaviour of birds as messengers from a deity.

The bonds between human beings and birds is vastly older than either of the two parties. Their co-evolution dates back hundreds of millions of years to the point where the lineages of mammals and dinosaurs diverged. Very early mammals literally ‘looked up’ to birds, or at least their ancestors, much as we do today, though for a different reason. The dinosaurs, most of them at least, did not ­fly, but they were vastly larger than the rodent-like mammals living alongside them. Very likely, the mammals regarded the ancestors of birds with considerable fear, a bit like what a vole may feel about an owl. Ever since that time, the two groups have been constantly observing, and adapting to, one another.
For humankind, the story of evolution is our epic, our myth of origin. In older books of natural science it was told as a fairy tale. Man was a heroic fish climbing out of the water to colonize the land. He gradually developed legs and learned to stand upright. He domesticated fire, developed new weapons and vanquished large, powerful adversaries. Current books are more detached, more technical and more complex, yet their stories remain full of intense challenges, confl­icts and friendships.

But there is no episode in the vast epic of evolution with as much high drama as the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, when Earth was struck by a huge asteroid. No event seems more miraculous than the escape of a few dinosaurs, which had taken to the air and were well on the way to becoming birds. We have adopted the dinosaurs as surrogate ancestors. In terms of evolution, of course, that is not the case, but we show vastly more interest in dinosaurs than in our early mammalian relatives. We see ourselves as ‘dominant’, and we think the same of dinosaurs. Finally, we see the evolution of dinosaurs into birds as, in many ways, a sort of resurrection. We hope this for ourselves as well. They mirror, in summary, nearly every aspect of the way we see ourselves as human beings: powerful, vulnerable, wicked and blessed. One might say, then, that dinosaurs are the ‘parents’ of birds and the ‘foster- parents’ of human beings.

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