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What I’ve learned from birds

Acclaimed Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick tells us how he fell in love with birds – a passion he shares with the Rotarians


Writer Albert Camus believed that artists invariably cycle back to one or two images that opened their hearts. For me, that was birds.

I’ve been fascinated by birds since childhood. Now I have bird feeders in my backyard, and every morning is a miracle. Sometimes 30 species of birds show up at my feeder – sparrows, juncos, blackbirds, finches of every kind, the odd warbler, cardinals. I don’t know what it is about them that makes me so happy, gives me such peace, and fills me with such wonder. Perhaps it is the idea that nature isn’t something a hundred miles away. Even in the city, it surrounds us and makes life more bearable and beautiful and wondrous – and enjoying it doesn’t cost a thing.

What I’ve learned from these common, everyday birds is just how uncommon and remarkable their lives are. I’ve learned that their songs are a language, far more complex than we knew. I’ve also learned that grosbeaks, crossbills, and siskins fill out the finch family of songbirds known as Fringillidae – and to me, the finches possess the most lovely songs of all the songbirds.

Often there is a silhouette of a woman in my drawings. That woman is my grandmother Mae, who, every morning, would toast a couple of pieces of bread and put jelly on them. She would then dice them up and toss them out the back door for the birds. When I asked her why she was giving our bread to the birds, she would hold a finger up to her lips and tell me, “Listen.” 

When I did, I heard blackbirds, mourning doves, warblers, finches, and sparrows. My grandmother would look down at me and tell me, “For a piece of bread, you can hear God sing.”

The Magic Catbird/collection of Gabrielle Fitzpatrick

The Bird of the Century/collection of the artist

The Secret Bird/collection of Charlie Jones

Bird For The Daughters Of Juarez/collection of Troy Klyber

The Jersey Owl/anonymous collector

Kid Ghost/collection of Troy Klyber

Indiana Cardinal/collection of John Shaft Jones

Birds Of The Fisher King/collection of Kurtwood Smith

Birds Of The Fisher King/collection of Kurtwood Smith