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The Elusive Strawberry Finch

It would, it seemed, be a bird that they didn’t have.


Amongst the bright Lorikeets, the Parikeets, Puffbirds and Noisy Pittas with their huge eyes, the Saffron Finches, Bee-eaters, Gorgeous Golden Orioles, I searched. I looked amongst the Gouldian Finches, the Turquoise Tanagers, the Painted Buntings. Amongst such names, each carrying a vision of painted feathers, a hint of exotic travels made by botanists and naturalists as they gathered specimens from foreign lands to show the world over a century ago, I searched.


But to no avail, amongst these and other brightly coloured birds, that stood poised ready to fly, there appeared to be no Strawberry Finch.



They had two beautiful black and yellow Regent Bowerbirds, their backs, shoulders and wing tips a bright yellow. One regarded me with its beady eye whilst the other was frozen mid swoop, wings outstretched mid flap. They also had a case of the tiniest hummingbirds, their iridescent feathers catching the light. Eggs, so tiny, in the smallest of nests, you’d think they came from a miniature doll’s house, or a fairy tea party.





But....no Strawberry Finch.


I had come to Tring, to the Natural History Museum to see if I could find, not the Strawberry Finch, but the feeling of wonder I had discovered as a child at the Natural History Museum in London. I had remembered a visit, perhaps when I was maybe six or seven, seeing so many beautiful birds that it had left a lifelong impression. Case after case of butterflies and moths, often many of the same species, had inspired me ever since.





What struck me was not only the diversity of species, but that within just one species so much variety exists.


I remember poring over cases and observing that the rows of butterflies looked, at first glance, virtually the same. On closer inspection every individual was unique.

Even then, at a very young age, I could clearly understand, that if moths or butterflies from within only one species were each unique, so too were humans, so too was every living thing. it had felt like a very easy message to take away with me.


I had walked through the Museum imagining all these butterflies flying in clouds around me, all those birds, bright flashes of colour on the wing, their songs filling the air, some exotic air of distant lands. I’m not sure if I thought they were dead or alive, I just remember being mesmerised by their beauty.


I have been drawn to Natural History Collection and Museum collections in general ever since. They have directly influenced my art and my approach to working with the uniqueness of people’s creative expression.


But I had felt puzzled upon revisiting the Natural History Museum years later, as an adult, to find that whatever the impression I had remembered in memory, was I mistaken then, or had things changed since. And of course, everything changes, nothing stays the same. But...where were all the cases of moths and butterflies? They seemed to have been replaced with a single specimen of each insect ....and a lot of primary-coloured interactive games with buttons to press or flaps of wood to lift up. Things To Do.

Where were the specimens I remembered? Where were the hundreds of birds and trays and trays of butterflies...

That feeling of utter wonder at seeing so many specimens..... ?



Perhaps I had imagined them, run together all the creatures and multiplied them in my mind’s eye. When I enquired of nearby staff, however, they told me that a lot had been moved and were now on display in their site at Tring.



So here I am – looking for the elusive Strawberry Finch. I hadn’t planned to. But amongst the richness of the collection; the fabulous Greater Bird of Paradise, the Shearwaters, Golden Eagles, Godwits, Ruffs, Cromorants, Monals, Golden Pheasants, Mackaws, Red and Gold Bishops, Weaverbirds, Herons, there is still that same sense of wonder- the beautiful exotic marvellous effect of birds - even if they are still and silent. In a way, perhaps part of the wonder is that they ARE still and silent. I can never see them in life like this, for they are always alert, moving, darting on the wing, a blur in the hedgerow, a twitter amongst the undergrowth. But here I see them, have the chance to really observe them, spend time drawing them and enjoy wandering amongst them.


It popped into my mind... "I wonder if I they have a Strawberry Finch?"

Being unable to find it, I asked a woman at the front desk. She helpfully looked up the Latin name, the popular name Strawberry Finch, Finch, Strawberry…. Red Munia, Amandava Amandava....But the little red bird remained ....elusive as fleeting memories, childhood impressions.


The Red Avadavat lives in grasslands in Asia, and during the breeding season, the monsoon season, the Male changes colour to a bright vibrant red. He isn't a bird I will ever see in my home country or even if I travel through Europe. I might only ever see him in a Natural History Museum.


But, not here, not today. There was no Strawberry Finch.














So, I sketched a vibrant Splendid Fairy Wren instead.... it isn't as if there was any shortage of wondrous birds to be inspired by!


I love being amongst the birds, be they live, dead or imaginary....and whilst museums may seem to have pulled back from showing the full array of their collections, that full variety from just one species…. I realise I have been gradually making my own collection.


Those early impressions at the Natural History Museum have left a lasting legacy.


Through my own love of collections and collecting, I have been inspired throughout my life and I have had the privilege of working with unseen museum archives and collections to create and inspire not only my own ar, but the art of others.


I have worked with and exhibited in many Musuems alongside such Natural History Collections. I have created whole rooms full of paper moths, plaster fossils, natural form drawings, Hybrid Creature sculptures, birds, imaginary worlds, collections of my own created props and artefacts.




And, during the last few years I have been making hundreds of jewelled birds that have woven trails through collections in Museums- my own brightly coloured collection of nearly 500 twinkling birds. A flock of glittering fantasy sparrows, covered in glass crystals, handmade Italian papers, gold metal leaf, crackle glazes. Almost 500 Sparkle Finches, each one different, singular, unique.





Perhaps.....through making of them I have recreated that same feeling of wonder I experienced as a small girl visiting the Natural History Museum for the first time.



And perhaps somewhere amongst them I have made my own Elusive Strawberry Finch.







MAKE YOUR OWN SPARKLE FINCH WORKSHOP

If you would be interested in learning all the skills to make your own bird sculpture, Athena Jane will be running a Creative Sparkling Bird Sculpture Workshop to show you all the secrets on

Sunday 21st January 2024 at Laughton in East Sussex

Join her in this intensive, day long workshop and she will show you step by step, how to make your own Fabulous Sparkle Finch. Beginners and experienced artists are all welcome.



Photographs of birds were taken by Athena Jane at NHM Tring in Hertfordshire.

Other Photographs taken at Echoes Across the Century, Guildhall Art Gallery,

Cumberland House Natural History Museum, Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon

Except for the Strawberry Finch above, the photographer of which....naturally...is elusively unknown.











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