The first bird that captured Isaiah Scott’s imagination doesn’t appear in any field guide. “It’s an extinct bird known as the ‘terror bird,'” he says, a prehistoric flightless carnivore more terrifying for its bone-crushing beak and gargantuan size than for its ridiculously small wings. . While his teachers gave lessons, he drew the creature and imagined landscapes long gone. “Dinosaurs and prehistoric stuff really fascinated me,” he says. “Over the years I taught myself how to draw and paint, and experimented with different mediums like watercolors and pastels.”
When he was thirteen, Scott visited the Cornell Lab of Ornithology while on a college visit with his older brother. He bought his first pair of binoculars in the gift shop. Through the lenses, he came to appreciate the tiny descendants of the terror bird – the warblers and shorebirds of his native Georgia. A sense of exploration drove him outdoors, and the rush for new species kept him coming back. “That excitement kept me on the ground,” he says, “with my eyes to the trees, the sky, the water.”
Scott’s hobbies eventually coalesced. The result is an environmental and aesthetic sensibility in the tradition of self-taught artist-naturalists like John James Audubon, but also deliberately contrary to Audubon. The namesake of hundreds of birdwatching groups, the 19th-century painter has come under scrutiny for his legacy of slavery and white supremacy. In 2020, the National Audubon Society began to re-evaluate its history and chart an anti-racist future. That summer, the first Black Birders Week drew attention to the challenges faced by black birders like Scott.
South Carolina author and naturalist J. Drew Lanham illustrated the obstacles in his “Nine Rules for the Black Bird Watcher.” Rule #2: “Always carry your binoculars and three pieces of ID. Rule #3: “Don’t make birds in hoodies.” Already.” (In 2020, Lanham wrote a watchlist with “Nine Rules for the Woke Birdwatcher”: “John James Audubon didn’t care about black human lives. Harriet Tubman knew woods and wetlands well – she even used an owl call to identify with freedom-seeking souls. Let her be your freedom-loving savage hero.”
When Scott was a young teenager and an anomaly in the bird hotspots of Savannah, he looked to Lanham for motivation to pursue what he called his “burning passion.” (Garden and Gun featured a conversation between Lanham and Scott this spring.) Despite more visibility and attention for black birdwatchers, especially after the infamous Central Park incident in 2020, their pioneering work is far from done. Whether he likes it or not, Scott carries a heavy torch, but his dual pursuits, art and birdwatching, justify the uphill battle. The ultimate goal is not just inclusion, it is the right to this beauty, this joy.
Now finishing his freshman year at Cornell, Scott believes his passion for art and ecology will last a lifetime. In 2021, with funding from Drexel University’s Eckelberry Fellowship, he started a project to document the Gullah-Geechee people’s relationship to the coastal landscape. (For example, they historically referred to Bobolinks, which migrate through the South, as “rice birds.”) His findings and their ancestral knowledge will inform a field guide Scott plans to write and illustrate as is pursuing his major in environment and sustainability. .
Scott also paints birds and sells prints through his website and the Charleston Art Market. He learned to draw and paint anatomically accurate birds about two years ago, following YouTube tutorials with his sketchbook. Inspired by artists John Muir Laws and David Allen Sibley, he practiced scientific illustration techniques, and Sibley, whom Scott admires for his simple yet complex style, became a mentor for the field guide project. After a year of honing his craft, Scott landed on a medium he loved. “I mostly use gouache,” he says, referring to opaque watercolor paint. “I love rich colors.”
Colors are essential. Scott chooses the birds to paint according to the seasons. In winter, when arctic migrants arrive, he paints visiting waterfowl. In the spring, it may opt for a multicolored sparrow or a brightly colored prothonotary warbler. (In the wild, the bird’s characteristic dark wings are a gray blur; Scott renders the feathers in delicate blues and greens.) But Scott isn’t stuck by the time of year. Sometimes he just paints what he wants.
He searches images online to find a bird in the right pose, sometimes studying various photographs to develop his own angle, but eventually he hopes to use his own photos as a reference. Painting is an interior job. It requires attention to detail and concentration in a different way than birdwatching, but both give it a “sense of freedom.”
Scott knows his source of inspiration is in jeopardy. A 2019 survey in Science found that North America had lost 30% of its birds, or nearly 3 billion individuals, since the 1970s. Audubon reported that climate change threatens 389 species of birds. Habitat loss is ongoing and global warming has wreaked havoc on migration and foraging patterns. Birds arrive on their breeding grounds before the insects they eat have emerged, putting mothers and chicks at risk of starvation.
“We live around and share these natural spaces with the birds, and it’s up to us, the people, to have stewardship with them and help conserve and protect them for the next generation,” Scott says. His art, along with his social media presence and the birding trips he leads, serve this mission. Birds are indicators of change in the environment, he says, and we have much to learn from how they have learned to survive, a resilience honed since the days of the terrorist bird. In response to global stressors, taking notes on nature can be therapeutic for individuals and vital for our species.
For generations of people struggling with injustice, art and nature have provided comfort and motivation. They can be an escape from the fray and reasons to return to combat. Birds have symbolized freedom for centuries. They still do. “Look at the life and beauty of these birds and nature,” says Scott. “It can be a reminder that everything will be fine.”