This image is one of 435 hand-coloured plates that illustrate U.S. American naturalist John James Audubon’s book The Birds of America. This extensive ornithological survey of the United States is distinctive for its life-size representation of birds, which imbues images with a specimen-like presence. Audubon was unique among early 19th-century naturalists in his method of drawing from freshly-killed birds rather than from prepared specimens. Prints such as this one are based on Audubon’s original field drawings, and were engraved, printed, and hand-coloured at the London studios of English-American printmaker Robert Havell Jr (1793–1878).
Two anatomical tendencies in bird vision are presented in this print. The hawks, like humans and most avian predators, have binocular vision: the fields of vision covered by each eye overlap considerably. Like us, they can look at objects in front of them and perceive visual depth. Conversely, ducks – the prey, here, unlike the ducks in the Chinese paintings – have two distinct monocular fields of vision with little overlap because their eyes are angled widely apart on either side of their heads. Ducks and geese use rapid head movements – focusing on an object with one eye and then the next – to perceive depth, and rarely look straight ahead.
This understanding of avian vision shapes how we interpret the image by allowing us to imagine what the birds may see. The hawks seem to look up at us in recognition of being observed. We share a glance that is not altogether untroubled. The hawks’ prey are not only dead, but have been conspicuously blinded. Is our vision, too, threatened by this visual exchange? Given these predators’ apparent capacity to tear through flesh, the focus of their gaze on viewers elicits a certain tension.
The caption identifies the subjects of the image as representative specimens of a particular species: the Great-footed Hawk. Their prey are similarly identified by species name. While gaze differentiates the duck corpses as objects distinct from the living hawk subjects, scientific text equalizes their status as items of human scientific inquiry – each meant to be captured, visually analyzed, and categorized. Scientific text thus reveals a condition of the production of this image that pictorial realism aims to obscure: in order to be made available for human visual consumption, all four animals were killed. The lifelike gaze of the hawks is necessarily a postmortem construction, and yet its inclusion in an image that aims to emulate the presence of the original animal reveals the high value placed on gaze as a conduit for compelling visual encounters.
Liuba González de Armas