Avian Aesthetics: Birds and Humans in the Literary and Popular Imagination

deadline for submissions: 
March 1, 2021
full name / name of organization: 
Danette DiMarco and Tim Ruppert / Slippery Rock University
contact email: 

Jennifer Ackerman’s national bestseller The Genius of Birds (2016) highlights how birds and humans, while on seemingly different evolutionary paths, have coincided in interesting ways as both have risen to meet the challenges of nature (The Genius of Birds 12). Birds have consistently been alluded to in literature, dating back to the Greeks, and the proposed edited collection Avian Aesthetics seeks to deepen the awareness of the importance of birds in the literary and popular imagination while simultaneously focusing on how the human vision of birds has altered in an age of Animal Studies, species-ism, and climate change. The organizational structure of Ackerman’s work classifies according to bird abilities (e.g., flight, technical aptitude, socialness, song, artistic/aesthetic creativity, spatial and temporal “ingenuity,” and overall “adaptive genius”) and influences our interest in essays grounded in convergence, meaning abilities that birds and humans share, like flight or song. We welcome proposals from a variety of theoretical approaches.  

It is time for a volume on this topic. In Fall 2019 the Center for Poetry and Poetics at Durham University, UK, organized an important conference that focused on “avian literary encounters in their myriad manifestations” (Durham CFP). Citing Leonard Lutwack’s famous Birds in Literature (1994), the conference organizers recognized the need for scholarly reconsiderations of “our ethical relationship to, and uses of, bird species” (Durham CFP). Although birds have been consistently and repeatedly important to literary authors throughout modernity, they are still the most neglected classification in growing work in Animal Studies. In effect, birds are still often thought of as just that—“for the birds,” so to speak. This is changing, especially in a watershed moment of a global pandemic. A glance at bird scholarship in literary studies reveals a scattering of critical essays across important journals. Some of this critical work includes looks into avian imagery in works like Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Powell’s The Echo Maker, Russell’s Swamplandia!, or Hitchcock’s The Birds, for instance. Other essays make forays into bridging ornithology and literature in teaching, as in Schray’s exposition on leading a Marshall University honors course in which students read literary works about birds with a conjoined applied experience in the field. Some scholars have opened their literary criticism to studying nature writers and scientists like Loren Eisely or E.O. Wilson, both of whom have done empirical work on birds. Some scholars have tried to evaluate bird representations in particular periods and in specific texts, like Michael J. Warren in Birds in Medieval English Poetry: Metaphors, Realities, Transformations (2018). In order to close the gap between ornithological and literary and popular culture knowledge, this contemporary volume of essays focusing on avian aesthetics wishes to contribute to expanding transformations in textual practices in literary and cultural studies.

Topics and texts may include, but are certainly not limited to, the following.

  • Birds and trauma and/or war (e.g., Birdsong)
  • Works by Helen Macdonald (e.g., H is for Hawk, Vesper Flights, Falcon, Recovery)
  • Rhetorical studies of bird field guides across time or geographies
  • Ecocritical readings of texts where birds are of import
  • Birds in children’s or young adult literature
  • Image-text or graphic novel representations of the avian or bird-related attributes
  • Subjectivity of the birder, perhaps as reader of culture and nature
  • Rhetorical studies of black birders
  • Urban and built environments and birds (e.g., Landfill)
  • Birds and surveillance
  • Common bird and human attributes in literary and popular forms
  • Birds in film, television, and other media
  • Apocalyptic literature/speculative fiction and birds
  • Birds and the supernatural/mysterious/sacred/mythological
  • Reconsideration of older texts through contemporary, Anthropocene lenses

We seek one-two page abstracts for critical essays across periods and nations that address topics related to birds and humans in literary and popular imaginations. Abstracts should clearly delineate the essay’s argument and trajectory. Once abstracts have been collected and accepted, the editors will organize the book proposal, which will be sent out for consideration to appropriate venues that have historically demonstrated a record of publishing in areas related to our topic. For now, we ask that abstract submissions follow MLA format.

Please send abstract proposals to Danette DiMarco at danette.dimarco@sru.edu and to Timothy Ruppert at timothy.ruppert@sru.edu by March 1, 2021. Those with inquiries may also email us.