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Birds, "The Magpie," a painting by Claude Monet

Subthemes: Flocks, Migrations, Feed, Nest and Eggs

Still and alone, perched above a snowy field on a gate formed in a wattle fence, sits a large, black magpie (with a blue belly). The solitary bird mesmerizes viewers of Monet’s snowscape, once they notice it, and brings to mind a number of associations with Birds.

The Magpie by Claude Monet.

Flocks: Notably, Monet included only one solitary magpie in his painting, and that single fellow can be easily missed. More commonly, many birds of the same kind cluster together; as the saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together”. Many of us have marveled at a tree jammed with hundreds of starlings or other small birds or a field carpeted with Canadian geese. Flocks take fright as a collective, swirling swoop, covering the sky as a morphing nimbus of close-formation flapping wings. Birds keep in formation by monitoring only the birds next to them, which leads to their collective movement. Sticking together, like herds of animals or schools of fish, also helps protect each bird.

Migrations: Magpies are non-migratory, and it’s rare for one to ever travel more than six miles from where it was hatched. However, some species of birds travel for hundreds or thousands of miles from where they breed and nest to where they live. The sky used to be darkened and full of flapping wings as mega flocks made their way north or south. Such numbers can be a disorienting or scary sight. Such mass flights of birds happen less these days as their populations have shrunk.

Feed: When you notice the magpie in this winter scene, you might wonder how it finds food. Birds in the wild forage; in the suburbs, however, they don’t lack seeds and water because many hosts keep them supplied and enjoy the activity and the bird songs. After spreading seeds in the backyard, they can watch the meals of a steady parade of happy creatures adorned with bright feathers. During the winter, bird feed scattered outside enables the little creatures to survive the cold. Feeding birds sometimes requires special devices that can foil the plunderous squirrels. Think of hummingbirds sipping from their special feeders. Bird baths complete the accommodations for our feathered friends.

Nests and Eggs: Wings, beaks, and hatching eggs might be the three hallmarks that most immediately come to mind about birds. Monet’s magpie is months away from raising little magpies. In the Spring, Female birds lay eggs and then they or their mate sit on those eggs to keep them warm and protected until they hatch. That is when the tiny chicks peck open the egg, squeeze out, and grow in the nest until they too learn to fly. Off they flap to mate and continue the cycle. Meanwhile, the parent birds bring food back to the nestlings.

Chickens in the United States produce huge numbers of eggs each year for our consumption. For example, in 2017, the number of eggs sold as table eggs totaled 92.1 billion. Hens cooped for breeding are jammed together, factory-line machines for egg production; the conditions of commercial egg production are the opposite of those enjoyed by a free bird.

 

Against the snowy white, a single black magpie stands out. The bird brings to mind thoughts about feeding, nesting, and migration.

If you are interested in other thoughts on the concept “Birds,” consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, “About.”

We invite you to read about other paintings discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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