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What’s the Bird? by Barbara Steinberg

Online communities develop eccentricities, fixations on exactitude, passions to find the truth about an object, about each other, about power.

In the Ethnic Jewels Community, founded by Sarah Corbett, people pride themselves on being able to analyze every detail of a piece of jewelry, and from those observations, read it. The object is telling you where it came from, who made it, and why, but you have to translate its woven or soldered history into English. And you have to be right.

There are many dealers and major collectors who request and spend sizable amounts of money on unique masterpieces and best-of-breeds in a particular genre. Consequences abound if one is wrong, and there are always people lurking, ready to pounce on a mistake. This is a universal trait, which goes far beyond one online community. Prissy pin-prickers stalk jewelry-buying tours and auctions to deflate reputations, so they will have a reason to live.

But amidst all the drama, we in Sarah’s community have developed a quirk. We have all become obsessed with identifying birds in ancient art. “What’s the bird?” is our game. People will go to stupefying lengths, ruining their eyes after gluing them to computer screens to search the most obscure documents, so they could present new scholarship with nonchalant expertise.

Such was the case with a gold-cast finial made by the Sinú people from the Isthmian Region of present-day Columbia. It is one of my favorite pieces in the Cleveland Museum of Art, because it shows birds’ humor, ego, and godly sense of themselves.

I presented it to my Facebook gang with the museum’s description: “Unique to Colombia’s Sinú region are gold finials with sculptural images at right angles to thimble-like caps; the caps fit over the end of a staff, an emblem of rank that may have been held horizontally. This impressive finial features an alert, perky owl with a huge crest. 400-1000 AD. H: 4 7/16 in. W: 2 13/16 in. x D: 2 5/16 in.”

The museum identified the bird as an owl.

Many of the Ethnic Jewels Community members specialize in North African jewelry. Epic battles over peacocks and eagles on Moroccan pieces have risen to legend and are now folklore. When Inder Kumar Misra saw the Cleveland Museum’s gold finial, he wrote, “I think you might find this interesting. This bird resembles the one in this picture more than an owl might,” accompanied by an image of an Amazonian Royal Flycatcher.

Oh my Goodness! It looked like he was right! The bird’s crest said it all. According to Wildlife World, “The Amazonian Royal Flycatcher is a passerine bird of the tyrant flycatcher family. It is found in forest and woodland throughout most of the Amazon basin in northern Bolivia, eastern Peru, eastern Ecuador, eastern Colombia, Venezuela, the Guianas, and northern and western Brazil.

Amazonian Royal Flycatchers are 15–17.5 cm (5.9–6.9 in) in length and like to dart out from branches to catch flying insects or snap them up from leaves. They build very large nests.”

I wrote to the Cleveland Museum of Art and received a response from Sue Bergh, Curator of Pre-Columbian and Native North American Art. She wrote,

Dear Barbara (if I may):  Thank you so much for your message!  I followed the literature in identifying the bird as an owl in the gallery texts, but your suggestion is intriguing and we’ll follow it up, first via some research at our end and then perhaps by contacting the Cornell Ornithology Lab.  I’ll let you know the result and send repeated thanks for your interest.”

In the world’s hierarchy of who matters and who doesn’t, online community members don’t count for much more than flies. That anyone with a significant title would be interested our ideas made jaws drop and eyes open widely. We were thrilled. Inder wrote, “Woo hoo….yeah…woah….just wow! They actually heard you..frankly I didn’t think they would. Was quite happy sharing it amongst ourselves. But wonderful. Thanks!”

Then three days ago, I opened my email and saw this:

Dear Barbara:  Back in July, you sent us a message about the identification of a bird on a gold finial in the museum’s collection as an Amazonian Flycatcher rather than an owl.  After conducting a bit of research on our own, we contacted the Cornell Ornithology Lab, telling them a) the bird shown on the finial has usually been identified as an owl, b) we agreed with a recent visitor’s suggestion that it instead resembles the Amazonian Flycatcher due to its exaggerated crest, but c) the finial bird’s beak is strongly curved and raptor-like, unlike the Flycatcher’s beak. The director of the lab very kindly took the time to send us the following response, which we’ll use to amend our label copy for the finial.  (It may take some time to do so.)  Thank you for making the effort to send your message—it set us off on a very enjoyable and informative quest.”


All best,”


Sue Bergh, Curator, Pre-Columbian and Native North American Art”

The message from the Cornell Ornithology Lab

I always enjoy these mysteries.


My first reaction was that this object combines the spectacular, vermilion-colored and blue-tipped crest of the Royal Flycatcher with generalized features of a hawk or eagle. The crest on your object is remarkably reminiscent of the flycatcher (which I have handled many times, and I can attest that the bird erects it widely and laterally while doing a bizarre head-rotating display). Royal Flycatcher would certainly be familiar to indigenous people of northwestern Colombia, and when held in the hand it is one of the most unusual and gripping displays of any bird I know. Here is one of many superb photos of Royal Flycatcher available on the internet. Incidentally, this display has rarely been seen outside of the context of captured individuals, but the internet does have one pretty good video of two birds displaying at one another.

It also occurs to me that the “king of the forest” eagle in South America – the Harpy Eagle – also has a rather spectacular, laterally-displayed crest, so the gold figurine could actually have been created to represent this largest and most widely revered of the New World eagles, and provide it with an exaggerated crest modeled after the Royal Flycatcher. Here is a representative photo of a Harpy Eagle with its crest displayed.”

An eagle had to come into this story somewhere. It’s a rule. However, WHAT?

Two people devoted to scholarly research in the Ethnic Jewels Community; a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art; and an ornithologist in Ithaca, NY, had a roundtable discussion about a bird identification? The wonders of the Internet will never cease.

The Cleveland Museum of Art changed the title and description.

Title: “Finial with Bird (Harpy Eagle with Royal Flycatcher Crest?), 400-1000.”

Description: “This gold finial fits over the end of a staff, an emblem of rank. The bird has the hooked beak of a raptor—perhaps the harpy eagle, the “king” of tropical forests. The enormous crest, however, may be inspired by the Royal Flycatcher, a smaller bird that fans its unique, brilliantly colored crest during mating.”

And so it was that a credible hunch from a scholar in New Delhi made it to the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Amazonian Royal Flycatcher and the Harpy Eagle finally earned their moment in the sun.

For Inder and all our devoted members, here is the link to the revised description of the finial on the Cleveland Museum of Art’s website.

As life’s rules dictate, the the exact bird identification must remain a question.


Barbara Steinberg writes while wearing diamonds, looking at the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the Western United States, and created


A tale of sharing passions and of people power, yet also a reminder that communities should take care of everyone within them.

I am delighted that a conversation within the Ethnic Jewels Community led to a revision by a Museum, it is at the core of our ethos to discuss the real significance and representations of the pieces we share.

Beyond this joyful news Barbara’s playful portrayal of the community made me think about how we can lift one another up by positive and insightful communications. Long may we, as  group of passionate jewellery collectors, dealers and researchers remember to gently impart our understandings and kindly welcome those who join the group.

Sarah Corbett.