I have always treasured the diversity of living creatures like birds. But recently I have been treasuring how much we are the same.
Feathers show mind boggling diversity in their forms, from four-foot long pheasant tail feathers to almost microscopic cheek feathers on a hummingbird. Yet no matter how diverse feathers appear, they mostly share the same basic structure: shaft, barbs, and barbules.
Just like feathers have the same basic structures yet appear wildly different, we too have more similarities to all mammals, birds and fish than we do differences. We all have skin, livers, hearts, blood, lungs, bones, and nervous systems. We have indistinguishable cellular structures and functions from those of other creatures. We share almost all the same DNA. I treasure the diversity of life. But the sameness of life is also a source of wonder and connection. And this can challenge our perception of the world as revolving around us, humans.
People tend to focus attention on relatively minor differences between humans, and between ourselves and other creatures. Just like in medieval times, when we lived as though the sun and universe revolved around the earth, around ourselves, we still observe the world as human-centric. Well, we are not the center of the universe, nor are we the center of life on earth. We are part of it, we are unique but so is each living creature. And our unique-ness doesn’t mean we’re really all that different.
With cold, wet winter weather, I am grateful for my warm, dry house.
This month’s editorial in Orion Magazine was about keeping house. The writer touched on the fact that we humans keep a poor house in regards to taking care of our larger environment, which makes it a less hospitable place to live. While reading this, I started to think about birds and feathers. Consider that a bird’s house is its feathers which provides all it needs for transportation, warmth, and shelter from rain. To keep house a bird takes good care of its feathers.
If we had feathers, we wouldn’t need our houses, fireplace, clothes, or cars. If we grew feather coverings, taking care of our larger environment would be a lot easier. Maybe we would feel less entitled to use any resources we found to fulfill our needs, because our needs would be a lot less.
The defining characteristic of birds is their feathers. I like to learn everything I can about them. But now I am reading and looking at the drawings in “The Unfeathered Bird” by Katrina van Gruow. The author shows everything about the physical structures of birds—without feathers. So reading it, I take the opportunity during these dark winter days to explore underneath feathers. Delving through this book, I am discovering how birds have many little ways to help their bodies fly. Looking at it this way, feathers are one of a thousand flight adjustments birds have made like:
● hollow bones ● beaks which eliminate heavy teeth ● double-capacity lungs ● muscles to pull wings up and muscles to pull them down ● a wishbone and a breastbone to support huge flight muscles ● a rigid body compensated by a long and flexible neck ● huge eyes which see differently than ours.
detail from Bird Berry, amazon parrot secondary wing feather
I treasure the variety of wondrous foods that are easily available to me. All I have to do is go to the supermarket and in a seemingly magical way, I can taste bananas from Honduras and chow down on baked cakes with wheat from the Palouse, sugar from Barbados, and eggs from chickens fed corn from Iowa. I can have a variety of sodas with many who-knows-what ingredients from who-knows-where. I don’t have to know anything about where the food comes from, how it is raised, or how it gets here. I just buy and eat.
But appreciating and understanding where food comes from gives me a good feeling of connection.
So when I look at birds foraging, I feel a bit of a longing for local eats. I have been watching and admiring the way the local songbirds find their simple meals. The robins pull worms from the earth, the chickadees investigate every crevice in the trees for insects, and the cedar waxwings gobble the bushes’ winter berries.
The feather used in this piece is not from a local bird but is from a South American amazon parrot kept in a nearby aviary. The red in the feather was perfect for portraying berries the cedar waxwings were feasting on next to my house.
This is Art Basel week and my Miami dealer, Pablo Donna, has a booth at the Miami Art Fair. So that is where I flew. This is an opportunity for galleries and collectors around the world to meet, to show and buy art. It is one of our biggest art shows.
My mother’s side of the family is from the area; it is where she grew up. So I will meet with some of my interesting relatives and visit the old family homes. I also plan to hit the swamps and beaches to get inspiration for birds that live here, like spoonbills and ibises, skimmers and gallinules.
Hand-plucked from my turkey
This year for the first time, turkeys graced my field. I got these heritage turkeys from a friend who selectively bred them for their beautiful feathers. I quickly became enamored with the birds themselves, not just their feathers. They pretty much raised themselves. My small flock was given free range, though I clipped their wing feathers so I guess they weren’t entirely free. Nevertheless, they could hop the fence from my field into my neighbor’s. Which is what happened when my neighbor’s Chihuahua grabbed one. The bird was fine but this taught the flock to stick closer to home.
The big Tom turkey strutted around, always showing off his tail feathers. I like to use them in my art but I knew that by the time he shed his, they would be ratty and useless for me. I’d heard that if you pull fresh, fully grown feathers, that the bird will regrow them. But I was loath to do it as this bird was trusting, kind of like a friend. But after consulting several people, I reluctantly decided to do it. After grabbing the bird (as he walked right up to me) I began to pull his tail feathers. He didn’t flinch or seem to be in pain and the feathers came out smoothly and easily. He still walks up to me but seems to be a bit embarrassed having no tail to strut, even though he still tries.
Archaeopteryx 14 by 17 inches using a hornbill’s shed tail feather
Many kinds of birds have come and gone since the iconic archaeopteryx, 150 million years ago.
From a passage in Birds of the World (1961 Golden Press), Pierce Brodkorb estimated that based on the fossil record at that time that there have been between one and one and a half million species of birds since archaeopteryx. That seemed like a lot, so I checked on more recent estimates using statistics based on studies of the fossil record plus a lot of assumptions the scientists made. The estimates vary from 150 thousand to 1.5 million birds that have ever lived. Whatever the number of birds that have ever existed, there were a lot more birds that used to exist than the ten thousand-ish that exist today. Richard Pimm (who made one of the lowest estimate of total bird species) says that without humans, one species is thought, on average, to have gone extinct every 1000 years. Recently, with humans of course, it is a lot more.
Besides being sad over how much faster extinctions are happening at our hand, I come away from this with an amazement for how many different kinds of birds there were. I imagine, how many different patterns, shapes, and colors of feathers there have been which we will never know but can only try to imagine.
Paleo Owl, 14 by 17 inches, currasow and turkey feather
I welcome the darker and colder and wetter seasons because, I tend to spend more time inside without feeling the pull of the warm sun drawing me to explore the natural world. I get to work on art. The themes of my winter pieces will sometimes edge away from portraying certain kinds of birds and their behaviors and more toward the meanings associated with feathers and flight.This is a piece I made last winter. If I lived in a cave, a fire would light the walls, casting upward shadows. I made the piece specifically for this kind of shadow. Because it needs to be lit from below, it has not left my studio. A home or gallery is almost always lit from above, so it would have to have special lighting for this piece. Now that I think of it though, some upward lighting would feel kind of cozy on a cold winter night.
My inspiration was from a petroglyph that you can go see in Columbia Hills State Park on the Washington State side of the Columbia River. I took the liberty of stylizing an image to adapt it to feather cutting.
- Petroglyph in Columbia Hills State Park, Washington
Red-wing blackbirds mislead us. On one hand, their noisy and busy behavior in the cattails during mating season seems directed at keeping other males away from each of their small aggressively defended territories. Males have many female mates. But here is the curious thing that I read on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site: up to half of the baby birds have a different father.
I think that something else is happening in those cattails than males trying to keep a harem of females for themselves. Either the males are spectacularly unsuccessful at defending their territory or something else is going on. Perhaps a hint is found in the bird’s fall and winter behavior. All the males gather together in large same-sex flocks, spending most of the year with each other, eating and sleeping together. Maybe they are a bit more cooperative during breeding season too? Or maybe the females are controlling the shots despite all the noisy male behavior.
Blackbirds continue to inspire me. It is the time of year. Having eaten all seeds off the sunflowers, they continue to raid the goose feed. They don’t take a lot and I don’t mind because I get to watch them. Three kinds have come: brewer’s, redwing, and one solitary yellow headed, which is rare around here.
It is the flocks of the male redwing blackbirds that most attract my attention, because of their bright red and yellow-feathered “shields”—their showy shoulder patches. My attraction seems natural because after all, their bright feathers are meant to be seen. But how to incorporate their patches of bright red into a feather composition? When all I have to work with are naturally colored feathers, I thought to either scatter random small red feathers in a piece or do what I did here; use a single naturally reddish feather shed from a turaco to be the symbolic shoulder patch emissary.