If heaven is something a bird ever imagines, I don’t think it would be a place with clouds. Clouds are part of birds’ lives, they fly around in them. Especially during our rainy-cloudy season. We can’t fly, so those of us (probably who live in dryer climates) place fluffy clouds along with angel wings and feathers in the heavens, or at least as bridges between worlds.
I was taking a nice warm morning indoor shower, thinking of these things and thinking how I could use feather in art to describe a bird’s heaven. I recently sketched a series with cloud/rain themes. My inspiration usually arrives as intuition rather than a specific meaning I want to convey. But in the shower, it was as if the clouds suddenly cleared and the stars appeared. I thought, “If a bird had a heaven in its yearnings, it is stars, not clouds.”
This thought, I admit, was probably heavily influenced by the several weeks of constant rain and cloud cover in my area of the world. The sun did shine for an hour yesterday one morning. Like cave-dwelling dwarves, people came out of their houses, squinting and shading their eyes, happy to see beyond the clouds into the heavens.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Who knows if heart symbol-shapes mean the same thing to birds as they do to us. Probably not. Even though birds’ hearts are similar in shape and function to ours, they are relatively bigger. They pump more blood and usually beat faster–a lot faster, 1250 beats per minute for an active hummingbird. But when a hummingbird rests at night, the heartbeat goes down to only 50 beats a minute! I wonder how much faster a hummingbird heart beats when it wakes up, and sees its mate, its valentine.
This short video shows some of my process of cutting a turkey tail feather to bring out a little bird.
Everyone knows penguins as land waddlers but what fascinates me most is how well they swim. On a trip to the zoo, I watched and took pictures through an underwater viewing window. I envisioned these birds chasing schools of baitfish, even though the zoo keeper was feeding them dead herring or anchovies.
Later, I examined a stuffed Adelle penguin. Like the turkey, its tail feathers are the bird’s longest at five inches. The penguin uses these thick-shafted feathers not for display or flight but to make a three-legged stool: two feet and the tail.
My favorite rooster’s feathers.
From 50 billion chickens killed each year, industrial farmers around the world throw away almost all of their feathers: 8 billion pounds into landfills. The chicken farming business is so competitive that farmers make only a few cents on each bird. farmers would rather sell the feathers than throw them away. There is hope: universities and private research labs are busy finding ways to transform feather proteins into usable products; some are finding their way into the market, but most are in development to make them economically vialble. Here is a list of what I found trolling the WEB for a few minutes:
fertilizer ● animal feed ● extracts for liquid and solid fuel ● hydrogen fuel storage ● insulation ● absorbent materials for diapers and environmental contaminants such as radioactive strontium and cesium ● ingredients in paints ● filters ● mats for erosion control ● paper ● stuffing for furniture and mattresses ● moldable thermoplastics for soles of shoes, cups and plates, furniture, roofing, and for auto parts such as dashboards ● ingredients in cosmetics ● clothing ● boat construction (mixed with fiberglass ● and circuit boards.
Manufactures will soon take advantage of the special forms of protein found in feathers by grinding, mixing, heating, and formulating them with other chemicals to make feathers a bigger part of your life in the near future. Perhaps when writing a future blog article, I will use a keyboard made out of feather plastic, use a computer with circuitry made in part from feathers, and sit on a chair made of feathers, stuffed with ground and re-purposed feathers.
Green Jungle Fowl feathers
We humans, being quite inventive creatures, have successfully increased our population to over 7 billion. A lot of our inventions and population increase depend on fossil fuels. Where would we be without use of gas and oil to make fertilizers, to transport raw and finished materials, and to manufacture about everything?
If a certain measure of success is how many there are of an animal, chickens have got us beat. At any one time, 19 billion chickens live in the world according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. In a sense, they are using us. Like we are dependent on oil, they are dependent on us for their population success.
Where would chickens be without us? Probably where they started: a few relatively small populations of the four species of junglefowl, all in Asia. They look a lot like chickens. The feathers shown here are from a male green junglefowl who sports a beautiful pink, turquoise, and yellow comb on his head.
Next: what to do with all the chicken feathers?
Sources: 1. Howman, Pheasants of the World, 1993 and UN Food and Agriculture Organization http://faostat3.fao.org/browse/Q/QA/E
It’s funny, but when cutting detailed bird shapes out of feathers, I make very few cutting blunders.
When something has my full attention, mistakes become unlikely. When I make one, it is either a result of inattention to detail, skipping a step in the process, or because I am exploring the “cutting” edge of learning.
I cut the wrong side of one of these feathers when I skipped the step of checking my preliminary sketch to see where to make each cut. An artist, using oils or acrylics, can just paint over mistakes; or even paint over an entire piece. With a feather, an error means starting over. I am looking for a similar feather to replace this one that I ruined.
Blunders like this put me in mind of the process of evolution. A fault in a creature’s body usually makes life harder. The creature dies or doesn’t reproduce more of its kind because the mistake gets in the way. However, once in a great while, one of these errors makes life easier, more effective, better. I haven’t experienced a cutting-feathers-mistake contributing to better art…yet; though every once in a while, I seem to try.
These are guinea hen wing feathers. The piece, once I find a replacement feather, will be 30 by 20 inches, picturing California quails flying up into the circle of feathers.
“The power of the wind was in the feather which he made you hold in your hand.” Quote from a participant in The Feather Religion, 1905, Klickitat, Washington, USA.1
Klickitat native, Jake Hunt started this religion between 1898 and 1904. This was a during a generation of northwest USA natives who were experiencing huge changes in their cultures as European descendants restricted their ways of life and access to resources. It was related to the Washani (which also uses eagle feathers) and later, to the Shaker Native American religion.
An eagle feather was held in each hand and a person would spin. Songs were sung, drums played, and feathers waved to keep time. The feathers were used to brush sickness off the body and worn in the hair in prescribed ways as reminders of the powers of feathers, or at least by association, eagles.
“It seemed as though I were traveling as I had never traveled before because in my hand I held the feather…and it was leading me on”2
1 & 2 Alice DuBois, The Feather Cult of the Middle Columbia, 1938, General Series in Anthropology, George Banta Publishing Co.
My new and first book is here: Feathers Form and Function. I am excited to be able to offer a profusion of my art and my thoughts about feathers all in one place. You will find quality in the design, the printing, and the materials used; and the way the printed colors accurately reflect the art. I undertook writing this book a year ago by gathering my previously published short articles, including some from this blog, researching, and mostly, regular writing appointments with my computer and notebook. The easy part was supplying the designers with art which I did up until the last minute so my latest works could be included in the book.
This website’s book page describes the contents in more detail and provides an easy place to get a signed copy.
On the side of a mountain under a ponderosa pine, a warm October sun lulled me into a sleepy happy place. Plop! Something small and hard fell on my face interrupting my dreams. Opening one eye, I spied a white breasted nuthatch working the tree over, looking for bugs by prying up loose bark, which rained down around me.
Lying there, occasionally dodging falling bark, I watched a flock of them for an hour. What struck me (besides the bark) was the agility and intensity of these little birds. They looked in every nook and crevice, upside down under branches, sideways, and on the trunk.
At 17 by 14 inches, this piece is made from two turkey feathers.
I dream of taking a trip back through the eons that birds have been on the earth to see all the different shapes and forms and colors of the feathers that have come and gone. Some birds probably just slowly changed over generations to something better adapted to their surroundings while other species just perished. It would be a journey to see the continuation of the dance of life on earth.
How do humans fit into the world today—from the perspective of feathers? The male peacock’s display feathers evolved to be so long and ornate that they place the bird at the edge of the ability to survive. The peacock’s tail limits its movements so much that a little more tail would keep it from escaping predators. We are impressively clever, active, and striving creatures. It seems like we keep getting more so. Our inherent ability to invent and build appears to place us at the edge of our ability to continue to thrive and maybe survive. What if through our inventiveness, as we grow in numbers, change our surroundings to suit our immediate needs, and reduce the ability of the earth to support us, we are evolving beyond our capacity to inhabit the earth?