Look what I found hiding in this feather

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.

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An industrial chicken feather problem

rooster feathers

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.

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Population problems and chickens

Green Jungle Fowl

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
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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.


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The Feather Religion

Tundra SwanThe 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 on2

1 & 2 Alice DuBois, The Feather Cult of the Middle Columbia, 1938, General Series in Anthropology, George Banta Publishing Co.


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Book has arrived! Feathers Form and Function

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.

Book on Feathers5WEB

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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.

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To Live

Skipping_Dinner_WEBwmI 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?

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Try taking two flight feathers from the same side of a bird’s wing and put the front, leading edge parallel and over the trailing next feather, like it was on a bird. The pull them gently and you can feel the feathers grab. If you put the leading edge of a feather underneath trailing edge of its neighboring feather instead of on top, there will be no grabbing; they will just glide smoothly over each other.

These feathers stick together in at least three ways to help make the wing smooth and aerodynamic:

1. The leading edges of the feathers let a small amount of air through as the bird flies, a little more air than comes through the trailing edges. This evens the pressures caused by moving air which would otherwise tend to pull feathers away from the smooth airfoil a wing is supposed to make for a bird to fly
2. The leading edge of each feather curves slightly down and the trailing edge faces slightly up. So when two flight feathers on a wing overlap, the leading edge grabs trailing edge of the next flight feather.
3. The almost microscopic barbules on the leading and trailing edges of each flight feather sort of splay out which help to grab onto the next feather, further creating more of  a seal so the feathers stick together firmly in the wind.

Reference: Muller, V. and Patone (1998) Air Transmissivity of Feathers. Journal of Experimental Biology 201, 2591-2599

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Killing Birds for Ebay

Argus Pheasant wing feathers

Someone is killing wild Great Argus Pheasants in SE Asia and selling their feathers on Ebay. It is making me sad as these pheasants are one of my favorite birds. Partly why I use feathers in my art is because they are freely given by birds. These pheasants shed their feathers every year where they are kept in zoos and private aviaries. I want people to appreciating life through my photography and art, not kill it; and especially not buy feathers from birds that were killed for their feathers.

Can taking pictures of beautiful birds and feathers or making art from them urge someone to buy feathers from birds that were killed for their feathers? I hope not. But it is a thought that bothers me and several wildlife photographers I have spoken to. I did report this auction to Ebay and federal authorities.

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