There’s something incredibly poignant about a dead bird. Birds in life seem to be perpetually moving – their eyes darting around in search of dangers or food, feathers constantly being ruffled, feet shuffling on perches, wings flapping in the air. Even when they are asleep, their downy chests visibly rise and fall with the rhythm of respiration.
As a result, to see a bird so still, and so quiet, is strange as well as sad. Especially when the bird is as young as the chick pictured here. And yet: there is also a sense of peace about this picture, the curvature of the little beak suggesting, perhaps, the hint of a smile. For this tiny bird, at least, the struggles of survival are over.
It doesn’t take long for a bird carcass to disintegrate. Birds carry little fat on their bodies, which are, of course, designed to fly and sometimes float on water. Then there is the fact that their bones are light and hollow. It is this delicate anatomy that leads to them decaying so quickly. This little bird is well on its way.
This rapid decomposition is thought to be the main reason there are far fewer birds than other vertebrates in fossil records. However, an exception to this is feathers, which resist decay for far longer and have been identified in fossils from as far back as the age of dinosaurs. Of course, proof of the durability of feathers can be seen more easily on your closest feather duster.
This deceased specimen, which looks like some kind of wading bird, has its wings outspread as though in mid-flight; nature mocking its release from the world of the living. The bent webbed foot on the left side might be a clue as to the cause of the bird’s death, yet whatever killed it, we don’t imagine it was too long ago. The corpse still looks relatively fresh.
There’s nothing fresh about the wizened claw in this photograph. The shrinking skin has exposed the long, scary-looking talons the bird would have used in life to help hold itself steady. Raptors need their talons for catching prey, while some birds also use their claws to protect themselves. This particular claw now mostly resembles a scary image from a horror story. We can’t help but be reminded of Poe’s poem "The Raven."
The black feathers and legs of the dead bird in this next picture lead us to believe it was a crow – although, naturally, identifying it is difficult without being able to see the whole body. With their somber color scheme, crows always seem dressed for a funeral, and have long been associated with death in various cultures. It’s said that during the Middle Ages, people believed witches could cast death hexes using the symbol of a crow’s foot. This claw sure looks creepy enough to us.
Only a few feathers remain of this former creature of the skies, a reminder of fragile mortality among the lush green grasses that surround it. Many artists have strived to show the beauty inherent in death, including the author of these photographs, Rachael Inman, who feels her images capture “the death of the physical being and the release of the soul into the heavens.”
Mortality as a subject for art is certainly not new. In fact, it is probably one of the earliest and most common themes explored by artists. There are many examples of contemporary art in which death is the central subject, including works that incorporate entire corpses, or pieces thereof – both human and animal.
Commenting on an idea by German artist Gregor Schneider, who was seeking people to die in an art space as part of a planned work, art critic Brian Sewell asked: “Can such a disquieting thing be art? Should it, indeed, be done in a civilized society?” A question to which he himself answered: “Perhaps so.”
Such a concept is clearly a big step further in the direction of the macabre than these images, but they still speak of the morbid fascination death holds for us.
Notwithstanding the somewhat unsettling effect of these images, we’re actually fairly familiar with the sight of dead birds. After all, it’s not unheard of to find a lifeless chick that’s fallen out of its nest, or a pigeon that’s been pounced on by a cat. And of course there’s the roast chicken many of us enjoy now and then. We’re willing to bet, though, that this is one of most artistic presentations of feathered roadkill you’ve ever seen. Unless the art of taxidermy is your thing.
The line between feathers and leaves become blurred in this shot in Rachael Inman’s series, highlighting the repetition of patterns often seen in various forms throughout nature. Even the coloring is similar. Both the leaves and the wading bird (which we also saw earlier) are dead, and both will break down into basic elements that will fertilize the ground beneath them, nourishing it for new growth.
Plants are not the only organisms to benefit from death. As well as maggots and flesh flies, certain species of beetle, known as burying beetles, also thrive on carrion, using it for both food and as a breeding ground. What we might find repulsive is in fact a necessity for the existence of such scavengers and proof that, in the natural world, nothing goes to waste.
These shots, which their photographer Rachael Inman describes as “an exploration into the creatures of the heavens and the earth in a moment of mortality,” have shown us another side of death beyond the perceived ugliness of decay. As well as being a key part of the life cycle, death can also undoubtedly be beautiful.