Unlikely Avian Taxonomies
Exhibition Title: 'Unlikely Avian Taxonomies'
Designers: Zoë Sadokierski and Kate Sweetapple.
Venue: DAB LAB Gallery. Sydney, Aug 28 – Sept 29, 2012

In this project, Zoë and Kate recategorise real birds into new taxonomies, based on patterns in their names. We spent the better part of a year reading through 31,500+ names in the International Ornithological Committee World Bird List, searching for bird names with 'visual potential'. We call this method exploratory data mining – searching in a particular way, rather than for a particular thing. Through this research process, we came up with five 'unlikely avian taxonomies', and visualised these new taxonomies as works on paper. Click through the slide shows for each taxonomy to see the research process and the design outcomes.


The first visualisation was a pair of A3 paper collages called 'Spotty Birds' and 'Stripy Birds'. In these works, the naming patterns are literally patterns – birds with 'spots' in their names and birds with 'stripes' in their names. The composition refers to standard bird-spotting charts, found in field guides such as What Bird is That? These posters were displayed as part of Art By Design 7, a group exhibition at Books Kinokuniya Art Gallery in February 2011.

/ (1 of 1)


After cataloguing birds with spots and stripes, we moved to birds with colours in their names: the Orange-breasted Thornbird, the Olive Bee-eater. Initially we planned to create bird charts based on single colours (blue birds collaged using a range of blues), or bird charts using colour spectrums (yellows to oranges to reds). But as we kept searching, the list kept growing: primaries, secondaries, tertiaries, to art school favourites – cadmium and carmine, ochre and ultramarine. We found words we knew were colours but not what colours they were – flavescent and rufuous. And colours that we did not know were colours at all – cinerious, fuscous and malachite. And words we thought were colours but were in fact countries (to maintain some dignity, we won't list these). In the end we had 3,442 birds categorised under 87 different colours. This was by far the largest 'data set' we collected.

/ (1 of 1)


As we collected surprising names, potential categories formed. Boring birds appealed to us – Plain Swift, Common Jery, Unadorned Flycatcher. Obnoxious birds also stood out – the Screaming Cowbird and the Whooping Crane. Violent sounding birds are alarmingly common – the Blood Phesant, the Razorbill, the Cut-throat Finch. Although the Common Jery and the Cut-throat Finch may not immediately seem to belong together, these birds share an implied antisocial behaviour – from harmless to homicidal in hierarchy. We charted as many as we could, in a 'conventional' taxonomic structure.

/ (1 of 1)


Birds with moustaches. beards, masks and in spectacles are hilarious. Who are they hiding from? The ornithologists naming these birds clearly have a playful sense of humour. This one was too much fun not to do –however, it proved more difficult to get the visual tone right. Because birds actually do have whiskers and beard-like chin fluff, it was down to the spectacles to really draw attention to what we were communicating here.


As further evidence of Ornithological humour, some bird names are terribly smutty. We didn't make these up. To cull the list from around 50 down to 20 birds, we used a ‘laugh-o-meter’ technique, where we would read the names aloud and anything that didn’t prompt at least a snicker got cut. Each bird is collaged from a page of an erotic novel – Folies D'Amour: An erotic memoir of Paris in the 1920s by Anne-Marie Villefranche – with a piece of text that relates to the smuttiness in the name.

/ (1 of 1)