On its face, Chuck Draws Things is a web comic about mental health featuring relatable scenarios about the anxiety and depression felt by a plucky, googley-eyed pigeon. But there’s another reason why Chuck Mullin, the London-based creator of the strip, draws these comics: to spread her undying love of pigeons to the world.
“That’s my life’s work,” Mullin says. “If people could be a bit nicer to pigeons, then that’s amazing.”
Mullin is part of a small but passionate group of comic artists who have found birds to be excellent mediums for depicting life’s ups and downs. They, like other comic artists, are finding a home on Instagram, a social platform that’s a natural fit for the square images and minimal text of the comic strip. And in the process, they’re helping spread their appreciation of birds to the online masses.
Take False Knees, a comic strip by Joshua Barkman, who’s been drawing birds (and other city animals) since 2011. Barkman’s comic—which has an Instagram following of nearly 200,000—isn't as serious as Mullin’s; his birds ponder life questions from time to time, but they also poke fun at humans and other avians.
In Birdstrips, a comic started in 2017 by Montreal-based artist Jess Thomas, birds grapple with feelings of aimlessness and uncertainty. Meanwhile, the birds in Janie Stapleton’s St. Janie strip make light of life’s common challenges, like stress and flirting.
For many of these artists, it’s the fact that birds are social and expressive—the sparrows bopping around stealing food from one another; the crows with their disgruntled faces and confident swagger—that makes them such great subjects to project human behavior onto.
“They’re a lot like us,” says Stapleton, who started drawing comics regularly about a year ago. “They have their little social cliques, and they're kind of petty. They’re my absolute favorite animals to watch.”
While observing bird behavior and using reference photos can lead to realistic depictions of their subjects, there has also been a learning curve for artists worried about being scientifically accurate. Barkman says he’s learned a lot about birds out of necessity, as he works to avoid common missteps, like drawing a raven when he really meant to draw a crow.
“I thought I was generally aware of what bird species were, and I was not,” he says. Drawing birds regularly changed that. “I even know the scientific name for a lot of species of birds now that I draw, and that comes from just trying to find reliably good reference pictures.”
Thomas grew up in a small town with a bird-enthusiast mom, so she had been able to identify the common birds in her childhood neighborhood from sound or sight. But now that she publishes Birdstrips, she’s learned more about birds from her community of followers. For instance, when she was visiting her grandparents in British Columbia and couldn’t figure out what bird she kept hearing there, she recorded the song and posted a video of it on Instagram. Followers quickly identified the bird as a White-throated Sparrow.
Though each of these artists’ work often tackle life's more serious issues, there’s also plenty of time spent just admiring how amazing birds are and imagining different personalities for them—often playing off their names, plumage, and general expressions. An indignant Royal Flycatcher, for instance:
This ability to see birds in a different light—as funny, quirky individuals rather than ever-present beings that blend into the background—has slowly started to spread to the artists’ followers.
“A lot of people have said to me, ‘You’ve changed my opinions on pigeons. I now can’t help but feel a bit of empathy towards them,’” Mullin says
Other artists have similar stories. Rosemary Mosco, creator of Bird and Moon, the longest-running bird comic of the group, says she once got a message from someone saying they’d vowed to stop kicking pigeons after seeing her work—a low bar, to be sure, but a win for bird lovers all the same.
Bird and Moon, which Mosco created in 2004, is a science-based comic that weaves easy-to-digest facts about birds and other animals into bright, funny drawings. Mosco says she’ll also get messages from fans who start to notice behaviors they’ve seen in her comics in the birds they see.
“I feel like comics can be a really useful tool for trying to get people to be concerned about—and preserve—things that I feel are really important,” she says. “I have noticed that when I post stuff, I’ll get a bunch of replies from people saying, ‘oh my goodness, you’ve answered a question I’ve had for a long time’ or ‘now I’m noticing this thing all the time and I’m really excited.’”
Barkman, who also gets messages from fans who say they think about his comics whenever they see certain birds, says he hopes his work does help people start to notice the birds and other animals around them.
“That’s part of the reason why I like to include birds all the time, and city birds especially,” he says. “People do know these birds, they see them around, but they might not stop to think about their lives very much—or even worse, they might think these animals are pests.”
Of course, though scientists know that African Gray Parrots can grasp abstract concepts and that pigeons can count, birds obviously don't get anxious or depressed or grapple with existential questions quite like humans do. And yet there’s something to be said for turning a pigeon into an ambassador for mental health or a sparrow into a philosopher: If it helps people recognize themselves in birds, it might help them appreciate them more, too.
“I really, really hope that these comics have a positive impact on the way that these animals are thought of,” Barkman says. "I feel like it should help to at least bring a little respect to some of these species.”