Years ago I attended the Southern Highlands Craft Show in Asheville, North Carolina, and bought a goose carved by an older woman. She had two geese, but I could only afford one. The goose was in the charging position: head down and neck extended. It was the start of my appreciation for carved animals. Unfortunately, a couple years later the beak was chewed up by a long-haired black cat with a bum leg and an attitude (side note: this cat also enjoyed being vacuumed using the upholstery attachment). The damaged goose was packed away to limit further damage, and the cat with the bum leg moved with me seven times in three states, outlived two younger cats and died when she was 18. I did not acquire another wooden bird until well after she was gone.
Now, I have a small collection of wooden birds and will share some of them with you. I have also included some historical examples of practical items shaped like birds. We’ll start with a few from southeast Pennsylvania, a well-known region of talented folk artists.
Dan Strawser has been carving since the 1970s, and his wife, Donna, paints the birds. I’ve seen other birds by Strawser with wings carved in a similar manner. It looks as though the bird is seconds away from lifting off. Strawser did not sand the surface, allowing the surface carving to stand out and give the bird dimension. The bird and rounded base are painted a uniform black with only a small dot of white on each eye. Sometimes there is an urge to paint a base a contrasting color or pattern. For this bird I think a different color would detract from the overall image.
These may be house sparrows or song sparrows or some other birds entirely. Either way, I was attracted to the composition and the painting. Each branch with bird is one piece of wood with saw marks still visible. The body positions of the birds capture the quick movements of their real-life counterparts. Martin’s patterning and use of color on the birds and branches is nicely done, and the solid dark green base complements and anchors the composition.
One of the challenges in carving birds is what to do with the legs and feet. Alvin Martin painted the birds in a natural position with legs bent under the body and only the painted feet shown perching on the branches.
This little bird hangs from a ceiling fan light pull in a room where my mother spends much of her time. Bluebirds are her favorite. As you can see, the paint work is wonderful. Bluebirds are frequent visitors to our yard. One spring I watched a male bluebird trying to show two perplexed youngsters how to take a bath.
As much as I value the work of the carvers of southeastern Pennsylvania, both their observations of the natural world and their creative efforts to craft birds and other animals, I also appreciate a different approach.
Peter Dunham has designed a variety of animals, with most comprised of two to four pieces. The appeal to me is stripping the figure of an animal to its defining elements, in this case, the long curving neck and the large and wide-flung wings.
Putting Birds to Work
Domesticated birds have often inspired craftspeople to make bird-shaped boxes for use in the home. There are many examples of this idea in the “Peasant Art” series of books by Charles Holmes.
The top of the box (one piece or two?) flips open and it looks like there may be a catch mechanism at the base of the tail. A kitchen box to hold eggs is a utilitarian item. It can be a plain square box and does not need decoration. However, when the maker matches the design of the box to its use it becomes an object of joy. The curve of the bird’s neck, the detail given the eyes and beak and the meticulous chip carving add nothing to the quality of eggs stored within. But, for the woman or child that transfers the eggs from an old straw basket to this box it provides a moment of pleasure in the long day of work on a farm.
The idea of a bird-shaped box has a long history and can be found in many cultures. This box was used for cosmetics. The wings, attached with pins near the neck, form the lid and are decorated with crosshatching. The wings, likely cut from one piece of wood, swing out to open the box.
Another New Kingdom cosmetics box with a missing lid allows a better view of the bowl-shaped body of the bird. As can be seen in the color photo and the line drawings, this duck box has a greater level of carved detail. Although they are not necessary for the function of the box, we find the duck’s feet! With the wings closed and sitting in one’s hand this would be a delightful little duck that just so happens to be a box.
Back, or forward, to the 20th century and one more practical item in the shape of a bird.
This egg dish, or bowl, is quite dashing with handles formed by a beak and a tail of almost equal size. The bird’s “crew cut” comb just adds to charm of this piece.
Back to My Birds
This bird, by a carver in the exotic western portion of Pennsylvania, just sings. Dave has captured the dynamic moment before a bird launches itself into the air and takes off like a shot.
I don’t know who made this little bird or where it was made. Except for a portion of the head and neck it is covered in moon-shaped feathers. The head, back and wings are stained, adding dimension and life to the carving.
The wings are not perfectly centered on the body, but it takes nothing away from the piece. I find myself reaching for this bird almost every day. It is a little treasure.
One bird I do not attempt to pick up very often is the largest bird in my small collection, Rémy the Rooster.
I don’t normally give names to inanimate objects, just the special ones. Rémy was purchased from a seller in northeast Alabama close to where that corner of Alabama meets Tennessee and Georgia. It is possible he was made in the southern Appalachians. He was dated as being made in the 1940s, but could be a bit earlier or later. Whoever made this rooster had a good sense of humor.
I found a similar rooster, very likely by the same maker, on a high-end sale site that dated it as 19th century. It sold for more than five times what I paid for my bird and its shipping cost. To me, the 19th century date is doubtful. The entire bird was painted a mottled reddish color that obscured carved details on the head. I suspect the paint job was an effort to artificially age and date the piece.
My rooster is painted black and, based on several nicks and dings, there is no undercoat of a different color. The comb and wattle are dark red.
Carved details on his head include curlicues on the comb and a simple round eye rimmed with white. The carved line of the beak is defined with dark red paint. There is a chip off the end of the beak and on one wattle (or fleshy caruncle) and some dings here and there. Whatever his age, he is in good condition.
Rémy is made of one piece of wood and is staked into a base that is 4 inches high. A feather edge is carved above his legs, and the legs have spurs. His feet are carved into the base, a common feature for many wooden roosters.
One of the problems the bird carver must solve, besides how to present the legs and feet, is the weight of the tail. Often this is solved by carving the bird and base as one piece, or by placing the bird on a base as was done in the crow/raven in the top photo. The showy tail feathers of a rooster require a different solution as the weight and extension of the tail can easily tip over even small carvings. Rooster crafters have solved this problem by chopping out the underside of the tail feathers, thereby reducing the mass of the tail.
Now, I would never knowingly photograph the hind quarters of anyone, even to show you the rooster-tail solution. On the other hand, I have no qualms using a photograph taken by someone else (of the previously mentioned expensive rooster) as a means of illustrating the solution.
Although we may not be able to perfectly identify the species of each wooden bird, or have exact information on when and who made them, what we do have is handmade work that brings us pleasure. By extension, these wooden examples can help guide us to have a greater appreciation for the birds outside our windows.
– Suzanne Ellison