4. Ruffling Feathers


The possession and display of feathers is first and foremost an avian trait.

Bird’s feathers enable them to fly, protect them against the elements, and attract mates. But they need constant maintenance: the preening, washing and moulting of feathers are essential to a bird’s survival. Birds often moult just before mating, growing attractive new plumes like the snowy egret (Egretta thula) on their neck.

Photo © RSPB

Recordist: Miguel Angel Roda. Location: Saladillo, Buenos Aires.

Egrets, like many other species of bird, preen with oil or powder skin to help keep their feathers in top condition. The condition of a bird’s feathers is a good indication of their health: unkempt, bedraggled feathers would suggest a bird is in ill-health.

Feathers plumped-up and out of alignment suggest this bird – a Greenfinch – is unwell.

Feathers of course have evolved functionally to allow birds to avoid predation through flight, to keep their bodies warm and as shapely colourful attraction, like with Birds of Paradise. Although feathers appear to cover most parts of the body of birds, they arise only from certain well-defined tracts on the skin known as ‘feather tracts’.

Feathered (feather tracts) and unfeathered (apteria) areas of the avian integument (From: Chuong et al. 2000).

For birds, the problem is their feathers also attract humans, across time and place, as Fashioning Feathers… underlines, we have appropriated, crafted, and displayed feathers and bird skins for our own amusements.

And with feathers and prepared skins still being traded as commodities why do humans continue to be seduced by the allure of feather fashions and the display of avian forms?


With all these human designs on bird feathers Fashioning Feathers… enlists the artwork of Kate Foster and Andrea Roe to help engage our curiosity to wonder at how birds use their feathers – and what we do to birds in the process of fashioning them.

Kate Foster’s work THE BIOGRAPHY OF A LIE responds obliquely, imagining that birds had access to the materials and crafts of the Plume Boom. What would they do? She turns found and scavenged materials into a body jewellery series for some bird species that were almost made extinct at the hight of ‘feather fashions’.

Andrea Roe’s video work Kingfisher delicately records the taxidermy process, where skin and feathers are rearranged to appear alive again. Her other work shown in the exhibition – Intimate – also gets under the skin, as human and bird exchange form as “great tit”.

KATE FOSTER: BioGeoGraphies

Liberty Blue © Kate Foster 2006. Drawing that formed part of a collaborative ‘BioGeoGraphical’ project lead by Kate with cultural geographers Hayden Lorimer and Merle Patchett: http://www.blueantelope.info

Kate Foster’s artwork looks at how animal and human lives are entwined, in an era of species loss and environmental change. The work included in Fashioning Feathers (‘THE BIOGRAPHY OF A LIE’) was the forerunner of a series of ‘Biogeographies. Supported by residencies in Glasgow University (2005) and Stellenbosch University, South Africa (2007) , this project has generated unique histories of zoological specimens – becoming collaborative works extending ‘animal afterlives’ in human settings, which reflect obliquely on how natural history presents its subjects and the contemporary value of these collections. For example, working with geographers and museum staff, she drew attention to a rare and overlooked skull of an extinct South African antelope in the Hunterian Zoology collection. This led to traverses in time and place, holding hope of generative possibilities within a degrading legacy of loss and humiliation (‘Blue Antelope’).

Complementing such archival projects, current work is directed at ‘drawing in the field‘ in a rural area of Scotland – creative investigations of land-use, developing sensitivity to ‘changeable places’ and choices that are being made. As an environmental artist, her use of media is flexible and responds to context – documenting interventions and investigations through drawing, photography and writing, made available online. Overall, her work is informed by empirical study but the priority is making visual artwork to engage undisciplined senses (complex and surprising), offering routes to engage with ecological interconnectedness. 



BIOGRAPHY OF A LIE: Egret/Chapeaux, Kate Foster.

BOL Powerpuff © Kate Foster

BOL © Kate Foster

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) started as a campaign against the massive international plumage trade which provided feathers for fashionable society. After several years of campaigning, an exasperated leaflet from 1902 attacked those who bought and sold feathers, aiming to expose the ‘biography of a lie’ being told: feathers were often sold as being ‘artificial’ when in fact they were real, to appease the buyer’s conscience.

In THE BIOGRAPHY OF A LIE Foster refashions this history with a collection of body jewellery for birds exploited by this trade, some of which almost became extinct. These pieces are retrospective in style, and specially tailored to individual birds and their natural history.

Originally developed and shown in a Scottish context (at the Lloyd Jerome Gallery, Glasgow in 2002 and at the Hunterian Zoology Museum, Glasgow in 2007), she turned found and scavenged materials into a body jewellery series for some birds that almost made extinct in UK at the hight of the plume boom. Within the context of the first Fashioning Feathers… exhibition at the FAB gallery, Edmonton (Canada) the collection will be modeled on birds almost made extinct in the North American manifestation of the plume boom, including the most sought after Snowy Egret.



60 Wrens © Andrea Roe. 60 Wrens was inspired by looking into the museum drawers at the National Museums of Scotland and references the roosting behaviour of wrens in the wild.

Andrea Roe’s work examines the nature of human and animal biology, behaviour, communication and interaction within specific ecological contexts.

Several art residencies have allowed her to access different types of institutions ranging from the Wellcome Trust to the Crichton Psychiatric Hospital and most recently the National Museums of Scotland, where she developed work in response to research projects and collections. Through photography, film and installation, she attempts to translate scientific research on the psychology of animal behaviour into artworks that are experienced physically as unfamiliar, visceral sensory encounters.


Kingfisher Still. Video produced by Andre Roe (2007)

For example, video footage taken by Roe in Kingfisher reveals the delicate and creative process of ethical taxidermy and in particular showcases the expertise of Peter Summers, a museum taxidermist expertly preparing a mounted kingfisher.

Through a Leverhulme Trust artist residency at the Natural Sciences department of the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh, she became interested in capturing the critical moments of the process of taxidermy, a practice often thought of as macabre or gruesome. Roe, however, believes there is something poetic, if not beautiful about transforming dead animals into specimens that appear to be alive as Kingfisher so aptly demonstrates:

 “I noticed that Peter explains bird movement and behaviour in relation to his own body, at times not appearing to differentiate between the animal and himself. His knowledge of animals and his ability to represent them in a natural pose are in my mind unmatched in their delicacy and superfine accuracy.”

KingFisher’s showing at Fashioning Feathers… will be its North American premier. In this website context Andrea Roe and Peter Summers have kindly permitted us to show the following video, produced by Roe, demonstrating Peter in the final stages of making a cabinet skin of a Blue Tit. The film depicts Peter aligning the bird’s feathers in the manner it would do itself when preening:


All the bird skins in both Peter and Andrea’s own taxidermy practice (a skill Roe gained when apprenticed to Peter over several years at the NMS) are ethically sourced ‘found dead’ specimens.


Intimate: great tit, mourning comb © Andrea Roe

Intimate, a sculptural work being shown by Roe in Fashioning Feathers…, also gets under the skin, as human and bird exchange form as “great tit”.

Stuffed Bird Attached

Stuffed Bird Attached is a collaborative bookwork complied by Kate Foster and Merle Patchett for the show Fashioning Feathers… 

Environmental artist, Kate Foster and cultural geographer, Merle Patchett have been collaborating on a “series of interventions in the afterlives of zoological specimens” for the past five years (see Patchett, Foster and Lorimer 2011, Patchett and Foster 2008 and Foster, Lorimer and Patchett 2006 – www.blueantelope.info).

Investigation of the unique ‘biogeographies’ of different specimens, has led them to think about collections, their histories, and the people involved in them. This is part of a wider consideration of the entwined relationships of human and animals, and the spaces in which they play out both within and beyond collections.

In Stuffed Bird Attached, Foster and Patchett create an extended specimen label for the bird-of-paradise millinery specimens from the University of Alberta Clothing and Textiles Collection.

The bookwork is framed by two questions:

1. How does the presence of millinery prepared birds of paradise skins in a Clothing and Textiles Collection affect our understanding the entwined relationships between humans and animals?

2. What relationships, practices and geographies brought about their movement from natural habitats in New Guinea, making into millinery ornaments and presence in a clothing and textiles collection in Western Canada?

Click HERE to download a copy of the low res pdf.

Text by Kate Foster, Andrea Roe, Dr Merle Patchett and Stacy Boldrick.


Creative Commons License
This page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License: Kate Foster, Andrea Roe and Merle Patchett 2011.

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  1. […] HomeBiosBlog1. Birds of Paradise2. Fashioning Feathers3. Murderous Millinery4. Ruffling Feathers […]

  2. […] at how birds use their feathers – and what we do to birds in the process of fashioning them. Ruffling Feathers – this space enlists the artwork of contemporary artists Kate Foster and Andrea Roe to help […]

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