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.
Blackbird Rain . 40 by 60 inches . hertiage turkey wing feathers
Blackbird Melodies . 36 by 60 inches . crowned crane flight feathers and parakeet body feathers
As promised two weeks ago, here are images of two five-foot wide pieces, both of blackbirds. They will be shown as part of Art Basel week (December 1-6) at NOW Contemporary Art’s booth in Art Miami.
For Blackbird Rain, I used only shed feathers collected from one wing of a heritage turkey. It took four years to collect enough. For Blackbird Melodies, I used flight feathers from several crowned cranes that molted them last year. I combined these large feathers with small blue and green parakeet body feathers. Usually, no one besides me is obsessed enough or makes time to pick up small body feathers like these as they are shed. The blue ones were collected by a woman who got a parakeet companion after her husband died. She picked up every feather the parakeet shed for 22 years—and gave them to me.
The sunflowers in my garden are maturing. Soon flocks of redwing blackbirds will swoop in for a feast. In anticipation, two of my largest pieces are being made—each is five feet long.
Making a small piece involves cutting a single feather or two or three to make a completed picture. For a large piece such as this, the work becomes more compositional with many more feathers needed to complete the space. A painter has the advantage of placing any size, color, shape, or width of line on their canvas. A feather’s natural shape, form, and color are my only ways of making a unified picture.
Both blackbird pieces will be in the Miami Art Basel show this December through NOW Contemporary Art. I will post pictures of them on this blog in two weeks when they are complete.
All over my field, my geese are shedding their feathers after wearing them for a year. We also shed our covering–our skin. Instead of a yearly molt, we shed our outer skin constantly, so much that our entire outer skin is replaced about once a month. Another characteristic our skin shares with feathers is that each is made of the same kind of protein—keratin.
Reading a 2010 National Geographic article on skin , I found that like my field is full of shed feathers, my house is full of my shed skin cells. I shed about 8 pounds a year which becomes most of the dust in the corners, on top of the refrigerator, and on my computer screen. Eeeeew.
An artist’s job is to create bridges between how the world actually is and how we experience it. An artist help us to see and experience the world from a different angle—whether it is emotional, conceptual, or just seeing things differently from how our brains are used to—like M.C.Escher does so well. It helps us not get too stuck in one way of seeing things. It allows us to be more flexible and adaptable.
That’s one of two reasons I like Escher. The other is that feathers are arranged on birds in ways that are prominent in Escher’s drawing: they overlap into repeating diamond patterns that take up all the space on the bird’s body.
I’m Caucasian. My skin is not pure white—that would be weird–but I can make my relatively whitish skin turn a bit orange when I drink a lot of carrot juice.
Similarly, a male cardinal has to eat a lot of the right seeds and fruits to keep its feathers red all year. The same class of chemicals that make my skin turn orange, carotenoids, make the red in the cardinal’s feathers. Carotenoids are a class of pigments that gets its name from carrots. The red in the feathers last for the life of the feathers, about a year; and the orange in my skin, thankfully, only lasts a day.
This feather is from an eclectus parrot, a bird that also gets its red color from the food it eats.
My home is a swallow haven. The tree and violet-green swallows get bird houses on the top of long poles in the field. Barn swallows get the barn. I supply them with feathers for their nests and in return, they swoop around snapping up mosquitoes and other insects. These birds, plus the bats that nest in my barn, seem to eat all the mosquitoes because I never see any mosquitoes near my house. A barn swallow, I read, was calculated to fly 600 miles a day and snap up a bug a minute.
When I watch one of these birds dart aside to get an insect, I hear its mouth snap shut when it captures one. But I never have actually seen a swallow actually catch a bug, just heard the “snap”. When the swallows are about and I focus on a flying insect, waiting to see a swallow grab it, the bug always flies out of my sight, unharmed.
So I made this 20 by 30 inch piece of swallows catching bugs, using two mute swan feathers. With the white on white, it is hard to see the insect cutouts, just like it’s hard to see the real bugs the swallows catch. But with a direct light, intense shadows form, bringing the outlines of the bugs into sharp focus.
I ran into some trouble trying to portray a mockingbird singing. Because they “mock” many bird songs, I wanted to show it “singing” a lot of colored feathers. Scientists have recorded a mocking bird singing 180 different songs, one after another without repeating a single one. I ran into difficulty finding the right colors to finish the piece. Frankly, I don’t often think deeply about color theory because feather colors are quite limited. For help, I called my artist professor friend, Susan Aurand, who is a whiz with colors. I provided her with a choice of different colored small feathers. When she saw this piece that I had made, it was almost like she had a paintbrush in her hand, the way she gently placed small, orange, yellow, and red feathers in different places, bringing out the blues and purples. Thank you Susan! I am going to go back and read my color theory book—it’s buried around here somewhere.
A short drive from my home is a beautiful prairie full of wildflowers this time of year. After doing errands and computer work all day, I was happy to finally drive there, but it was already early evening. As I walked on the paths, a moonless dark set in and I was a half mile from the parking lot. This is not a place where people walk at night, probably ever; especially without a flashlight. Nor are there any nearby roads or houses to provide any light. Feeling my way with my feet while looking up at the starry night, I must have appeared strange to any creatures who lived there. Especially the owls. Suddenly, their screeches combined with fleeting glimpses of their silhouettes close over my head made me a little nervous. Not just one or two owls, but about ten. They didn’t seem to like something about me because they swooped down so close to that I could feel their wing-wind.
I felt a bit creepy, but mostly exhilarated. After semi-blindly stumbling back to the car and driving home, I marveled at how well those owls can not only see and at night but also hunt with their sense of hearing. Their feathers help them do this. Each bowl-shaped face-feather grows on the satellite receiver-shaped face of a barn owl. Come to think of it, each feather is sort of shaped like a tiny cupped ear. These shapes funnel the tiniest of mouse noises into the owl’s brain. I assumed that these birds found me through their vision but I could be wrong. My assumption comes from my own reliance on sight. Perhaps the owls located me just by the noise of my breathing and walking. Like they find mice.