As storytellers for Audubon we see and encounter birds in multiple ways, from filming Whooping Cranes to snapping photos of birdlife at its most vivid. Birding certainly brings us joy, but during these times of social distancing and staying at home we have also found ways to appreciate the creatures we love most while honoring how they are embedded in our cultures. May is Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month and because of the pandemic, this year’s festivities are a little different from those past. Instead of gathering outdoors in groups, we encourage bird enthusiasts across the country to join us to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander American heritage through literature, art, music, and other mediums.
Have you ever seen a crane in the wild? With their elaborate dances and natural grace, cranes have become an auspicious symbol in countless cultures for thousands of years. This elegant bird has made its way into paintings, pottery, the written word, and numerous other forms of art and folklore. In East Asian countries such as China, Japan, and Korea, the crane represents luck and longevity, especially when coupled with the pine tree. Japanese legend holds that those who fold one thousand paper cranes will be granted a wish and good health.
The Sarus Crane, with the scientific name Antigone antigone and सारस क्रेन in Hindi, is a species found in the northern parts of India. Its three subspecies range through parts of Southeast Asia and Australia. Sometimes measuring over six feet high, this crane is the world’s tallest flying bird and India’s only resident breeding crane. Because they are usually found in pairs, Sarus Cranes have become prominent in folklore and symbolize unconditional love and devotion. The Sanskrit poet Valkimi wrote what is considered to be the first shloka couplet after witnessing a hunter shoot down a pair of these sacred birds.
Cranes in Martial Art Forms
Daniel LaRusso’s crane kick to end the All Valley Karate Championship had to be based off something, right? There are several hundred fighting styles under the umbrella term of Chinese martial arts. Throughout the centuries of its practice, multiple martial art styles have relied on crane movements for inspiration, the most popular being Fujian White Crane. This Southern Chinese martial art originated in Yongchun County, Fujian province. The point of the style is to emphasize evasion and attack an opponent’s vulnerabilities.
According to Chinese folklore and legends, the founder of Fujian White Crane style Fang Qīniáng encountered a crane while doing chores and tried to scare the bird with a stick and skills she learned from her father. Instead of flying away, the crane countered with a flurry of dodging and blocking moves. From then on, Qīniáng combined her skills with the movements of the crane; centuries later this art form inspired popular styles like Wing Chun, Wuzuquan, and Karate.
Birds of Prey
For thousands of years, falconry, or the sport of hunting with birds of prey, has been widely popular throughout Asia. Its earliest traces are in Mongolia about 3,000 years ago, but Iran and the Persian Empire have also been credited as the birthplace of the art. The spread of its practice was largely due to its usage for legal and military affairs as well as land colonization. As a result, falconry rose to popularity in subsequent centuries, becoming most prominent in India, Eastern Asia, Western Asia, and parts of the Middle East.
Falconry, or takagari in Japanese, was also popular in feudal Japan (12th to 17th century) and dates back as early as the fourth century. Using this method as a means to hunt was a measure of one’s nobility and wealth. Birds of prey—falcons, hawks, and eagles—were a prized commodity among feudal Japan’s elite. And gifting these birds were a common practice to resolve land disputes and business deals and honor high status chiefs.
Takagari birds first appeared in Japanese art in the 13th century. These birds of prey became symbols of status and were often commissioned by shoguns, daimyos, and samurais. As the takagari practice grew in popularity in the 14th and 15th centuries so did the appearance of birds of prey in literature and artwork. Though takagari was a sport for the ‘noble classes’ in Japan, the national interest inspired famous Ukiyo-e artists Kawanabe Kyōsai, Hiroshige, and Hokusai.
Deities and Dances
The deity Garuda is traditionally depicted as a large and powerful bird of prey—typically an eagle or a kite—though in some cases, he is depicted as half-avian and half-human. Representing birth and heaven, the god is also known as the enemy of snakes, which symbolize death and the underworld. The Rubin Museum explains that “even though Garuda is primarily the vahana (animal companion) of the Hindu god Vishnu, he frequently appears as the crowning motif in Nepalese shrines and toranas, both Buddhist and Hindu.”
The national dance of the Philippines originated in the 1500s by farmers on the Visayan Islands of Leyte. Tinikling directly translated to English means, “to perform it ‘tikling’ like.” What does it mean to be ‘tikling like?’ The tikling bird, or the Buff-banded Rail, is known for its grace, speed, and ability to dodge bamboo traps set by rice farmers. Dancers imitate these movements by manuevering their bare feet between rapidly moving bamboo poles. Performers must be quick and agile while skillfully moving to the music and the percussive beat of the bamboo poles. Trust us, it is hard.
The Cendrawasih dance was designed by I Gde Manik and was first performed in the 1920s. Inspired by birds of paradise, or burung cendrawasih in Indonesian and as manuk dewata (“the bird of the gods”) in Balinese, the dance is performed by two women and illustrates the birds’ mating rituals. Dancers wear headdresses with feathers and flowing scarves that are akin to the beautiful colors seen on birds of paradise’s wings. Today, it is performed around the world to promote both Indonesian and Balinese culture.
Wheel of Existence
In Buddhist thought, the Wheel of Existence is, according to the Rubin Museum, a “ubiquitous visual teaching tool that explains the cyclical process of life, death, and rebirth (samsara).” The painting of the wheel can be found at the entrances of monasteries and temples, meant as a reminder to pedestrians passing by. At the center sits three animals: The bird symbolizes attachment, the pig embodies ignorance, and the snake represents anger. They cling to each other’s tails in a perpetual cycle that alludes to the origins of suffering. Birds don’t always get to claim the glory!
Mysterious Lady of the Nine Heavens
The Mysterious Lady of the Nine Heavens (also known as Jiu Tian Xuan Nu or 九天軒女 in Traditional Mandarin Chinese), a powerful Taoist deity and goddess of war, is said to have been the Yellow Emperor’s mentor on military arts, helping him triumph in a cosmic battle. In early depictions, she was shown as a deity with a woman’s head and a bird’s body. Taoists often depict her as a rosy-faced woman with a sword in her right hand and a gourd in her left, riding a phoenix with garments made of bird feathers. Though not as well known as some other deities in East Asia, there are still a handful of temples dedicated to the Mysterious Lady of the Nine Heavens throughout China and Taiwan today.
Dance in Kiribati
When compared to other forms of dance in the Pacific Islands, dance in Kiribati differs because of its emphasis on birdlike movement. The Frigate bird on the Republic of Kiribati’s flag refers to this style of dancing. Kiribati dancing is categorized into styles: Ruoia, Kaimatoa, Buki, Tirere, and Tirere. Each form incorporates bird-like head movements, but differs in costume, accompanying music, and number of dancers.
Have some fun and make some bird art!
Now that you’ve learned about avian-inspired art from parts of Asia and the Pacific Islands, why not create your own?
Learn how to sketch an Arctic Tern with ornithologist and illustrator David Allen Sibley. Famous as a long-distance migrant champion, Arctic Terns can be found breeding on the coasts and subarctic regions of North America, Asia, and Europe. When you’re finished, share your creation on Instagram or Twitter with #SketchWithSibley.
With a brush and some ink, you can also try your hand at painting a sparrow in the traditional style of Lingnan, a region that covers parts of modern China and northern Vietnam.
For something more three-dimensional, we created an origami guide showing you how to fold your own penguin, peacock, and crane. All you need is a piece of paper and perhaps a beverage for getting through those tricky folds. We hope you have fun with your papery creations—we certainly did!