Bird Brains in the Library: Bird of the Month Display Captivates Students

The Bird of the Month sign hangs over the stairs between the first and second floor of the Van Wylen Library. Hundreds of students walk underneath it, many without acknowledging the sign and the ever-changing selection of hand-drawn birds. However, a few may stop and wonder who is drawing the bird of the month. And more importantly, why?

As Allison Van Liere, the User Services Coordinator for the library explains, Hope’s Bird of the Month is actually related to a much more historical feature of the library: John James Aubdon’s Birds of America, a collection of photorealistic sketches that was originally published in 1860. The book has been in Hope’s collection since 1896, when it was donated posthumously from the personal library of Nathan F. Graves. The copy was passed around campus for several years before ending up in the library’s collection in the 1910s.

The main selling point of Birds of America is its size, with each page being over two feet tall and three feet across. All the birds within the book are drawn to scale; this large size is necessary to accommodate the American wild turkey and the flamingo. The latter is depicted in a now iconic print with its neck bent downwards in order to fit within the print. Interestingly, the flamingo is missing from Hope’s copy of the book, having been removed from the print at some point before it arrived in the library’s care.

Drawing of a bird from Birds of America (Photo credit: Owen Harries)

Van Liere recalls seeing the book tucked away in its protective glass case. Nobody had turned the page in over a year, and Van Leire felt the need to take up the job herself. To do so, she had to receive both permission and training from Library Director Kelly Jacobsema. She describes how “there’s a certain way you have to turn the pages, because they’re so big and you don’t want to damage them.” She began with page one, turning to a new bird every month.  

“I wanted to draw attention to the book,” says Van Liere. The display case is somewhat hidden behind the stairwell, in a low foot-traffic area. To combat this, Van Leire put up a large poster alerting people to the existence of the portfolio. 

To go with the poster, Van Leire enlisted the help of then administrative assistant, Melanie Rabine-Johnson to sketch the birds. Johnson, in her own words, “loves drawing anything.”  At the time she was working in the dean’s office, a position that didn’t offer many  opportunities for social interaction. Van Leire would come to her office on the first of each month, declaring ‘Happy bird day!” and telling her the new bird. 

“It was really fun to have a.. tradition every month where Allison and I were doing something creative together,” recounts Johnson.

The birds are sketched each month on a whiteboard, which presents a couple artistic challenges. “Dry erase markers [are] not my favorite medium for drawing,” says Johnson, “so there was a little bit of an intellectual challenge.” Johnson used both sides of the board, and had to design a special technique to avoid smudging one side while working on the other. It became “very complicated for dry erase birds”. 

Some birds were more challenging than others. Since the pages are so large and every bird is drawn to scale, small birds like warblers are often drawn two to a page in order to fill up the space. Two birds on either side of the whiteboards leads to a total of four birds per month, greatly increasing the amount of work required to not smudge the drawings. The bald eagle was also difficult, with its antique style not translating well into dry erase markers and leading to a cartoonish-looking sketch.

Despite its challenges, Bird of the Month holds a special meaning for Johnson, who learned to draw by copying the pictures from an abridged version of Birds of America. She recalls always being surrounded by birders while growing up. “There was always a bird book around,” she says.

As of January, Johnson no longer works with the dean’s office and has passed the responsibility onto Van Liere. Johnson’s six-year-old son, Wesley, drew her final bird as a farewell to the Bird of the Month, something he had been dreaming about since first seeing the book. 

When asked why she continues the project, Van Liere responded that she wanted to draw awareness to the Audubon’s Birds of America, as well as giving students a taste of the historical collection the library contains. “This is just one of many examples of really cool historical pieces we own,” says Van Liere, “I would hope that people would interact with it.”

Plus, as Johnson points out, it is fun to “geek out about something once a month.”

The current bird of the month is the American crow. It is visible on display on the second story of the Van Wylen Library, underneath the large banner and the Bird of the Month sign. It will remain until Feb. 28, when the page is turned and a new bird is revealed.

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