Drawing Birds: How to Sneak Up On Your Subject


Rufous fantail, drawn in Cairns, Australia, August 2006

One of the first things you’ll notice when you begin drawing birds is how easily they notice you. Birds are nervous and fidgety and will zip away when you’ve just settled down to render the tertials (don’t you hate that?), unless you learn something about their behavior and how not to scare them away. There is a technique for this.

You must change your own behavior.

white-whiskered puffbird and baby

White-whiskered Puffbird feeding fledgling; drawn on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, June 2005

To draw birds, think like a birder. Birders move slowly and carefully. They walk without cracking twigs or stepping on dry leaves. They tend not to talk, or if they do, they speak in low voices. They wear drab clothes, nothing white or brightly colored. Wearing camouflage doesn’t hurt. Come to think of it, hunters do the same thing. Success depends on being sneaky. Your quarry may be for the table, the life-list or the sketchbook, but the pursuit looks about the same whoever’s doing it. Blend into your surroundings, and if you can’t fade into the woodwork, lull your bird into believing you are harmless, slow-witted, and non-threatening.

Spectacled Owl, Panama

Spectacled Owl, drawn on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, June 2005

Every bird has its own personal space and wariness level, and some of this is situational: even a crow might seem tame and used to people being around, but if you tried to walk up on it and stared directly at it, it would feel harassed and leave you staring at empty air. A better strategy would be to get as close as you could and carefully watch the bird’s body language, so as to stop and freeze before the bird seems uncomfortable (it will signal this with nervous movements). Wait until it settles down. Don’t look directly into the bird’s eyes, and always try to approach by moving at a slight angle toward the bird. In other words, move towards and a little to the right of it, then move towards and a little to the left, until you reach a comfortable distance for both of you. A pair of binoculars helps you maintain the bird’s personal space, too.

White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike; drawn Mission Beach, Queensland, Australia, August 2006

When you’ve found the right distance, it’s time to draw. Have your sketchbook and pencils where you don’t have to fish around for them. On the trail I use a shoulder tote bag. Inside there are some small pockets for pencils, erasers and sharpeners. I never take my eyes off the bird while I reach down to one side and slowly pull out my drawing tools and sketchbook. Open the sketchbook with a minimum of fuss (I just leave it open to the next empty page when I’m done with the last drawing) and hope the bird isn’t spooked by white paper (note to self: start sketching on khaki paper). If the bird looks nervous, hold still a few moments, all the while memorizing shape, proportions, pose. Then draw everything you can while the bird is relaxed, or at least while it’s there. You’re working with your model; follow its lead. If you can sit, do so slowly and quietly. This will make you seem smaller and less threatening.

Varied Honeyeater feeding fledgling; Cairns Esplanade, Queensland, Australia, August 2005

Sitting down and being quiet is another technique that works well. This is an exercise in meditation, blending into the environment, and your patience will occasionally be rewarded with serendipitous delights. The trick to this method is to find a spot with a fairly good view: of a hillside, a trail, a fruiting tree, or a water source. Any place where you can be hidden away a bit, and see what’s moving around. You’ll be surprised how soon you become part of the surroundings when you sit quietly. If something comes near, look off to one side of it, or look down (you can still see it in your peripheral vision). All sorts of animals will get curious and might approach more closely, or will simply not see you with this technique. I’ve had deer walk up to me, foxes stare at me, relax and continue sniffing along a trail, a trio of Tayras in Panama who trotted across my shoes, a full-grown howler monkey who climbed into the tree next to me, looked me over, then curled up and slept peacefully for the next hour; an entire flock of mixed small tropical birds that swirled and fed and landed within inches of me…this can be the payoff for the patient bird artist who sits and waits.


Carolina Chickadees in Post Oak, drawn in my backyard in Norman, Oklahoma, USA.

For those of us who have backyard bird feeders and bird baths, we have a built-in bird sanctuary/art school. Food and water and a willing collection of semi-tame birds-hey, we’re all set. Put a comfortable chair where you can easily see your subjects, and you have a sketching station. You can disguise your station and make it into a “hide” or “blind”, or you can let your birds acclimate to your presence by regularly sitting and drawing there. Either way, you are getting some great practice sketching birds from life, and learning how birds respond to you, too, and how to adjust your behavior to become One with Nature. And that’s such a nice thing to be, it almost goes without saying.

12 thoughts on “Drawing Birds: How to Sneak Up On Your Subject

  1. Mary says:

    I came from BOTBs blog. This is a wonderful post. I love to photograph birds and enjoyed your advice on “sneaking up on them”.

    Your pencil sketches are terrific! The Carolina Chickadees are adorable and your colors are fabulous!

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