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Art on the wing

To see the painting ''Brightwaters Creek - Mallards,'' colored in the chilled whites and earthen browns of winter, is to shudder with the ducks as they hunch against the cold.

The ability to evoke that kind of feeling is what made artist Guy Coheleach (pronounced KO-lee-ak) last year's choice for Master Wildlife Artist - a prestigious honor bestowed as the eighth annual Birds in Art exhibit began its nationwide tour.

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The exhibition, completing a stay at the Exhibit Hall of the National Geographic Society here, is just part of a feathered fanfare that has invaded the nation's capital in recent months.

As it opened, another arty occasion - the only art competition regularly run by the federal government - was in the offing: the judging of entries in the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's federal duck-stamp competition. The winner stands to become a millionaire through sales of autographed prints.

Why all this twittering in the nation's capital? Simply because birds are big business in America - and in American art.

Americans, it appears, love birds - patriotic eagles and peaceful doves, the ducks of winter and the first robin of spring. More and more, they are putting their money where their heart is:

* Birdseed sales average $90 million a year, with sales of related supplies producing a billion-dollar industry catering to bird fanciers.

* A single work by one of the nation's leading wildlife artists or sculptors can sell for upwards of $50,000.

* Sixty million Americans are actively interested in birds, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Twenty million regularly feed birds; 2 million are ''serious birders'' who spend leisure time with binoculars and bird guides. Audubon members now number 500,000, 10 times the figure for 1960.

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But a question still haunts wildlife art: Is it ''fine art''? Is Guy Coheleach an artist or an illustrator? With disarming humor, Mr. Coheleach laughs at the question. Sometimes, he says, ''I consider myself a moneymaking machine.'' In serious moments, however, he has said that the work of the finest wildlife artists ''should be hanging in the Louvre.''

But that very financial success is part of the problem of gaining recognition for wildlife art as fine art. It is, say observers, almost too popular. Average citizens flock to buy it. Only now, one step behind the public, are art connoisseurs and investors starting to do so.

Roger Tory Peterson, the dean of American bird art who as writer, artist, and ornithologist produced his first Field Guide to the Birds in 1934, outlines some of the differences between bird art and fine art. Wildlife painting, he says, has to be representational. But so is the work of Warhol, he adds, and that is considered a ''valid statement.''

Bird art's only limitation, observes Mr. Peterson, is that it not be abstract: It isn't wildlife art if one cannot recognize the wildlife. Indeed, according to Mr. Coheleach, the genre was originally created for scientific purposes, to record the differences among species' appearances, behavior patterns, and habitats. Asked how long it takes to produce a work, Peterson and Coheleach agree: 20 years of study and practice, a month in the field, and a month at the easel.

Surprisingly, photography has not taken over the field guides or wildlife art. The photographer is still subject to chance, while the painterly artist can control lighting, placement, and background. But professional photographers increasingly note that cameras are now essential for observational field work, providing incontrovertible evidence of behavior patterns of birds. ''I spend $ 20,000 a year on photography,'' Coheleach says.

The fine-art-vs.-illustration debate also colors the competition for the federal duck stamp - officially known as the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp. Begun on a small scale in 1934, the stamps have now become collectors' items. Several of the Birds in Art exhibitors are duck stamp prizewinners, including the only five-time winner, Maynard Reece. Yet the winning entry has to be appropriate to a stamp, and winners are more apt to be brilliant designers than painterly artists.

''I knew I had to produce a design that would make a good engraving,'' says William Morris of Mobile, Ala., whose design of male and female American wigeons on a pool of deep blue water won the 1984-85 contest for the 50th-anniversary stamp. ''The good black-and-white contrast on the head of the wigeon, and the iridescence of the colors, I felt, would stand out in an engraving,'' he adds. It took Mr. Morris - a sales engineer for an electronic-instrumentation company - nearly 100 hours over a four-week period to produce his design.

In fact, the judges for the contest, which drew over 1,500 entries, included only one art collector. The others (whose names were not revealed prior to judging) were an environmental regulator, a waterfowl-habitat owner, a wildlife-association president, and a rancher.

Yet critical disdain is apparently starting to crumble before the depth of high-quality wildlife art: Coheleach paintings hang in the White House, the Corcoran collection, and the Smithsonian Institution; prints of his ''American Eagle'' are presented by the State Department to visiting heads of state.

The Birds in Art exhibition, which includes 51 paintings and 10 sculptures, is drawn from a larger exhibition mounted annually by the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wis.m Ways to get involved

Bird art has something for everyone. Like bird watching - which can be done almost anywhere, costs nothing, and joins love of beauty to interest in scientific subjects - wildlife art is egalitarian. It can be enjoyed at no cost in shows, at little cost in stamps that invest in the nation's wildlife refuge system, or at major costs that can reap the rewards of sound investments. BIRDS IN ART EXHIBIT:

It will be at the Denver Museum of Natural History Feb. l to March 18, 1984. From there, it will travel to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, April 3 to May 15. TO SEE MORE BIRDS AT HOME:

''Banquets for Birds,'' a primer of bird feeding, can be obtained from the National Audubon Society, 950 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022 ($1.60 plus handling). DUCK STAMPS:

$7.50 at major post offices. Waterfowl hunters must buy them. Collectors and environmentalists like to buy them because funds since 1934 have paid for 3.5 million acres of prime waterfowl territory for the National Wildlife Refuge System. WILDLIFE REFUGES:

For a map of the refuge system, write the Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C. 20240.

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