Edward Lear was a 19th century English author and poet, renowned today primarily for his literary nonsense, in poetry and prose, and especially his limericks, a form that he popularised. His literary work include the nonsense poem The Owl and the Pussycat, and a volume of limericks called A Book of Nonsense. Less known was the fact that he began his professional life as an artist and illustrator of birds.
The 19th century was a time of great discovery for birds, with lavish expeditions to parts unknown to the western world to collect specimens. Many of such bird specimens arrive in the great museums of the day, ready to be classified and illustrated. It was also a time when these very illustrations were compiled and published as volumes for sale. Advances in lithography made mass reproduction of such colour illustrations possible, although at a high price. Edward Lear was one of those artist that excelled in this art form.
A few illustrations from his collaborative work with John Gould, the ornithologist and artist on the monograph entitled “Birds of Europe” is reproduced below. This is limited to the raptors and except for one drawing, all these birds have been sighted in Singapore before. The original book is from the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the digital copy is available at Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Above is a video featuring David Attenborough on the bird illustrations done by Edward Lear.
The Western Barn Owl is an uncommon resident owl in Singapore. The painting by Edward Lear also depict this bird with a background of man-made structure, precisely where they are normally found in Singapore too.
The Black Kite is an uncommon migrant to Singapore. The subspecies found in Singapore is lineatus and is sometimes split into a new species called the Black-eared Kite.
The Common Kestrel is a rather uncommon bird in Singapore and is considered a rare migrant. It is nicely illustrated here holding on to a caught mouse., which is one of their main diet. It has been observed in Singapore hovering over open fields searching for prey, presumably small mammals like mice.
The Peregrine Falcon exist both as a migrant and a rare resident in Singapore since the subspecies that migrate differs from the subspecies that is local. Regardless of the subspecies, it is reputed to be the fastest animal in the world. It has to be fast, as its main prey are other fast moving birds.
The Common Buzzard is an uncommon winter migrant to Singapore. A few are quite regularly sighted at the perimeter of the Changi Airport runway. The ones found in Singapore are likely to be split off into different species in the future and called differently.
The Short-toed Snake Eagle is a rare passage migrant to Singapore, although in 2013 there have been two separate sightings in Tuas and over Jelutong Tower.
The Western Osprey is a can be found the whole year around in Singapore, although numbers increase greatly during winter months due to some birds migrating southwards. It is a fish-eating bird of prey, found mainly near the coast.
In the drawing, the eagle is simply called the Spotted Eagle. Subsequent findings have split this into the Greater and Lesser Spotted Eagle. In Singapore, the Greater Spotted Eagle is an uncommon passage migrant.
Simply called the Eagle Owl then, the Eurasian Eagle Owl is the one bird that is not found in Singapore. Included here as it is widely held that this drawing is one of the iconic one done by Edward Lear.