Book review: “Architecture by Birds and Insects: A Natural Act” by Peggy Macnamara

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Book review: “Architecture by Birds and Insects: A Natural Act” by Peggy Macnamara

Some birds and bugs construct nests by sewing or weaving strands of material together.

And some fashion nests out of various kinds of paper-like stuff that they create using their saliva.

And some form nests out of mud. And in depressions they make or find. And in mounds they raise.

And some carve nests out of wood.

Sometimes, nests — at times, many by the same individual — are constructed as part of a mating ceremony, but, much more often, they’re created to be the home of incubating young and to serve as their birthing room and as their childhood playhouse.

But not always.

The uglynest caterpillar builds a nest for its eggs in rose bushes or in cherry or hawthorn trees. But, then, when the eggs hatch, the larvae themselves build a web nest, also called a tent nest (often seen by humans as unattractive, hence, the insect’s name), in which they go through various stages until they come out as moths.

 

“Homes and safe places”

Nests are little works of art, built with care and precision, confident and complete. They work!…Best of all, they are of use, providing a service. They are natural materials recycled to create homes and safe places to nurture and protect young, while also integrating into the surrounding environment.

So writes Peggy Macnamara in the introduction to her 2008 book Architecture by Birds and Insects: A Natural Act, a collection of more than fifty of her paintings, featuring perhaps 200 images of nests and their makers.

Macnamara, an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been the artist-in-residence at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History since 1990. Most of the nests in her book were painted from the museum’s vast and varied holdings.

I can’t help but be amazed by these constructions, and I marvel at the animals’ instinct….They work as I do: slowly, persistently, and calling on the invisible answers of instinct.

After she began painting these nests, Macnamara was struck by parallels between these bird and insect homes and those of human beings. She writes:

These life-size versions of nests could be found in the adobes of South America, the conical stone domes in Turkey, and the thatched circular huts from Venezuela. The small-floating islands in Inle Lake, Myanmar which are sold and traded, resemble larger version of the grebe’s nest.

 

Something new

Yet, even if the homes of birds and insects have similarities with some kinds of human habitations, can anything built through instinct be called art?

Macnamara is right that instinct is one of the techniques that a human artist employs in the act of creation. But can something formed without conscious thought, just through the promptings of evolutionary patterns, be considered art?

I’d say yes and no.

It can’t be art in the sense that the best art by human beings is work that opens the eyes and minds of the audience. Think of Hamlet and Guernica and anything by Mozart.

A tree may be beautiful, a wonderful mix of colors and forms, but it is not art in this sense. As spectacular as the Grand Canyon is, it can’t hold a candle to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Nonetheless, as Macnamara notes, the birds and bugs that create the nests in her paintings are acting upon their environment in a way that results in something new.

 

“Steps back and observes”

An orange-crested gardener bowerbird, for instance, is moved by its instincts to create a nest, and it is the same sort of nest that generations upon generations of previous orange-crested gardener bowerbirds have fashioned. So, in that sense, it’s something that’s been seen many times before.

On the other hand, it is a unique nest inasmuch as this particular individual has selected these particular materials to put the nest together in a particular way that is like all other nests by the species, and yet unlike them all in its singularity.

And anyone watching the creation of the nest might be tempted to think that some level of thought, above and beyond instinct, was in action. Here’s how Macnamara describes it:

The male actually builds a kind of hut on the forest floor, complete with a waterproof roof. He covers the center of the façade with dark green mass; here on the “canvas” the bird arranges his treasures. On the left might be his shiny insect collection and to the right some shells. Then the bird gathers small flowers and creates a colorful line through the center. As the bird brings more elements to the installation, he actually steps back and observes the final “composition.” If dissatisfied, the bowerbird adjusts the flowers ever so slightly.

What the bird is creating isn’t actually a nest. It’s a bower, and it’s part of a mating effort that also includes a dance and a display of his colorful crest. If he’s able to attract a mate, the female is the one who ultimately will build a much simpler nest nearby for her eggs.

 

An edible nest and one weighing two tons

In addition to its paintings, Architecture by Birds and Insects: A Natural Act is filled with information about the nests, bowers and other homes of birds and insects as well as a lot of information about the birds and insects themselves.

Here are a few interesting insights:

  • The female black and yellow argiope, a spider, builds a kind of papery sac around her eggs. After finishing the sac, she dies. “The young spend the winter in the sac and emerge in the spring,” Macnamara writes.
  • Saliva is the mortar or part of the mix that becomes the mortar in the nests of a great many species. For instance, Macnamara writes that the chimney swift nest “is a half saucer made of dead twigs (plucked in flight) and plant material held together and attached to a flat surface with the bird’s hardened saliva.”
  • The Asian edible-nest swiftlet gets its name “for its valuable pure-saliva nests that are harvested as a delicacy served in soup.”
  • The cliff swallow sees many human-made structures as cliffs, such as bridges and high-rises. “For one month, I observed a colony of cliff swallows as they built nests on the modern buildings on Northwestern University’s lakefront campus.”
  • The sociable weaver is a bird related to the village weaver. “Pairs build individual nests so near one another that they begin to form a single unit. The community home is extended year after year. As many as 125 flight holes have been counted in these communal nests. One danger of this “apartment complex” approach is that when the group nest becomes too heavy, it falls to the ground.
  • For reasons not yet figured out by scientists, the rock wren creates a stone walkway, from eight to ten inches long, at the entrance to its nest.
  • Pied-billed grebes can fly, but prefers to do so only during migration. If frightened at their nest, they escape by diving beneath the water and seeking safety in the reeds.
  • The nest of the bald eagle can be five to nine feet in diameter and weigh 4,000 pounds.
  • Once the eggs of the mallefowl hatch, the parents depart. “The chicks hatch already feathered and tunnel up to the surface of the mound. There is no further parental care — the chicks simply wander and fend for themselves.”
  • Some species will capture prey and leave the victim alive but paralyzed in the nest so that, when the young hatch, they will have a live meal to dine on.
  • In addition to saliva, another bodily excretion that is employed by a variety of species in nest-building is feces.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

6.19.17

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