Shed Feathers Used to Track Birds by Chris Maynard

Birds are what they eat. What birds eat while growing feathers contain isotopes, trackable portions of hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen which vary in predictable patterns around the world. Enter feather analysis. 

Finding the chemical isotopes in a feather can tell approximately where a feather grew and what the bird ate. 

This is a new way to learn more about birds because chemically analyzing feathers is easier than banding birds. Though scientists discover information about a bird’s exact location and time by banding, they have to catch a huge number of birds since only a very small portion of the bands are recovered. It is an inefficient process yielding only limited information: where and when the bird was recaptured.

Placing small electronic radio signal devices on birds can tell us more such as exactly where the bird travelled and, depending on the device, data like temperatures along the way. However, these devices are expensive, don’t work well on small birds as their batteries have to be lighter, don’t have much range, and soon expire.

Collecting fallen, shed feathers is much easier than capturing live birds and it is kind to the birds. The information gained from isotope analysis is not specific to an exact location but more generally associated with a region. Since feathers grow in a very short time, the isotopic content of a feather will reveal the bird’s diet when the feather grew, and therefore the area where the feather developed.  general information about feather isotope analysis from the American Birding Association This university site is a good place to begin if you want to delve into the technical aspects of how it works and think about using it as a tool. The University of Utah provides training in isotope analysis, lab analysis, and more information through their programs and websites.

Art Inspired by Bird Sounds by Chris Maynard

Chris Maynard, Raven Croaks, goose feather, 12" x 15", 2016

Chris Maynard, Raven Croaks, goose feather, 12" x 15", 2016

I made three pieces inspired by the sounds birds make.

  1. The raven. In English, we describe a certain raven sound as a croak, which is also how we describe the sound a frog makes. I wonder if they ever fool each other.
  2. A jay (around here they are Steller’s jays) expresses a large variety of sounds including a very good imitation of a redtail hawk. I have been fooled.
  3. A kingfisher voices "kak, kak, kak, kak" so loudly it feels like a series of pulses. I wonder if the fish they are hunting hear it or feel it and are somehow fooled?


Better Sight Through Bird Eyes by Chris Maynard

We see color through three different lengths of cones in our eyes. That is why we say there are three primary colors, blue, red, and yellow. Most birds have four lengths of cones so they see a fourth primary color in the ultraviolet range. Just like blue and yellow combines to make green, ultraviolet light combines with the other three primary colors for birds to make combinations we cannot imagine. That means that bird’s feathers often have an ultraviolet color component that we can’t see but birds can.

I’ve been thinking how to express this in my work with feathers. I began by thinking about some ways we express the color spectrum: rainbows, color charts, color wheels, graphs, and prisms. So here is a take on it in this piece. 

Guide to Legal and Illegal Feathers in the USA (updated) by Chris Maynard

Gang-gang Cockatoo (Callocephalon fimbriatum) lives in Australia. This floppy male crest feather is 2-1/2 inches long.

Gang-gang Cockatoo (Callocephalon fimbriatum) lives in Australia. This floppy male crest feather is 2-1/2 inches long.

I pay special attention to the legal requirements of possessing feathers since I sell feather art. Many people tell me about their small feather collections so I thought I’d share a rough guide to what feathers you can have in the USA.

You can have:

  1. Feathers from most birds that are not native to North America.  European Starlings, House Sparrows, Eurasian Collared Doves, and Ring-neck Pheasants are not native to North America. Also, think feathers of peacocks, many parrots, most of the 55 species of pheasants, and small songbirds like zebra finches that are kept in cages. The biggest exceptions to this are the restrictions on having feathers of most birds that live outside North America that are critically endangered1,3.
  2. Feathers from most wild duck and geese you can’t sell, except for mallards. You can sell other kinds of duck feathers if it is for fly tying for fishing.
  3. Upland birds that people hunt—like turkey, grouse, and pheasant. Each state can have more restrictive laws, like in Washington State the Sharp-tailed Grouse is threatened so you can’t have those feathers unless you show it came from another state where hunting is permitted.

You can’t have:

  1. Feathers from almost all other birds in my country—not eagles of course, but also not seagull feathers, songbird feathers, or crow feathers2.
  2. Feathers from many birds from other countries that are critically endangered3.

Though all birds naturally shed their feathers about once a year, you’re not legally supposed to have most of them. A law called the (U.S.) North American Migratory Bird Act was made a long time ago when people were killing too many birds to use for fashionable hats. It’s a broad-brush law intended to protect birds.  It doesn’t recognize the difference between plucked feathers, shed feathers, or bird skins; you can’t have any of it. If a feather was pulled from a dead bird that you found at the side of the road or the beach, how does someone know that the bird wasn’t killed on purpose just for the feathers? It can sometimes seem silly but it is a matter of reasonable enforcement, like speeding law enforcement on the highway.

I try to be familiar with the laws but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is the place to go to for the final word in the USA. Here are some links to their sites plus another helpful link:

1 The American Federation of Aviculture's website has a discussion of when you can have feathers from parrots from other countries that are critically endangered in those countries but because they are commonly kept in aviaries in the USA, it is ok to have their feathers in the USA.

2 The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the place to go for the final word on the Migratory Bird Act. The law is explained and they have an alphabetically arranged list of protected birds.

3 Here is a link to lists of earth's endangered species; click Cites Appendices. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  oversees the Convention on Internation Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) within the USA.

Shedding, Molting, a different perspective by Chris Maynard


A focus on feathers offers a different way of looking at birds. Feathers are meant to function best on birds but each individual feather is a bit of perfection in itself. What if the function of the bird’s existence is to produce these perfect feathers? The bird would mate, lay eggs, and raise baby birds so they can continue making feathers. Then the feathers would shed their birds once a year.

Featured Feather Artist, Nelly Saunier by Chris Maynard

Nelly Saunier watches.

Nelly Saunier watches.

Nelly Saunier creates wonders as a plumassier in Paris. A plumassier is a person who deals or works with feathers.  Her creativity shows brightly in her feather art, art installations, collaborations, fashion, jewelry, and what caught my attention first, her recent micro-feather work on the faces of watches. It is worth spending some time clicking around her website. I am always interested in other artists who work with feathers and have several other artists in mind to feature in this blog later this year.

Abundance by Chris Maynard

Quail Stretch.

Quail Stretch.

As  my garden grows with more abundance than I can use, so does my creativity. Apples on the ground, baseball bat-sized zucchini thrown into the compost; more lettuce, beets, figs, kale, chard, and tomatoes than I make time to harvest and use.

Producing creative ideas for new pieces is like that for me. I feel blessed with abundance and yet I am able to gather only portion of the opportunities, making them into art. Is it a waste perhaps like the garden produce? Or, like the unused fruit and vegetables that go back into the soil to nourish next year’s plants, do unused creative ideas somehow nourish future creativity?

Stop Motion Video: A Possible Explanation for the Sudden Appearance of Swallows by Chris Maynard

In the stop motion video, you can see the progression of placement and cuts. For me, what really stands out is how the feathers and the cutout birds pop out at the end when they are elevated. The shadows give the work an added dimension.

A big piece like this usually comes after making several smaller pieces where the design concepts are tested. It took a while to collect enough of the right feathers—these are all from the right side of the wing of molluccan cockatoos. Some were shed from a pet bird over several years and some shed in a nonprofit rehabilitation sanctuary for parrots.

I often show a playful element in my work. Playfulness  allows me to learn new things and skills without being too tense, like the second brood of swallows today that were just off the nest learning to fly. I watched these young ones playing with a feather, catching it in their beaks, dropping it, and picking it up again and again. I bet they were enjoying improving their flying and bug catching skills.

Lucky Icon? by Chris Maynard

I don’t care if its rainy weather just as long as I have my holey feather riding on the dashboard of my car. ♪♪

I don’t care if its rainy weather just as long as I have my holey feather riding on the dashboard of my car. ♪♪

This all seeing cyclops feather just travelled from Washington State to New Mexico and back. Having it with me reminded me of how I have chosen to see the world, through my focus on feathers. Perhaps it also brought luck as the Santa Fe show was a success and I am invited back next year. Now I am told that having a rearview mirror adornment is illegal if it blocks the driver’s view of the road.

Art Production vs Creativity by Chris Maynard



Part of what makes making art rewarding is exploring new creative ideas. But people see the art I have already made and often want something like it, the original having already been sold.

This can create a quandary for the artist because if we fall completely into producing similar pieces to satisfy demand, we lose our time to create new works. So we strive to find a balance between producing a lot of similar work with producing only completely new creative original work.

Fortunately for me, I enjoy the process of making each piece and therefore am satisfied making a few originals based on previous designs, like “Harken.” However, exploring new creative territory remains extremely important so at least a day or two a week, if not more, I work on completely new design ideas.

Morning Crow 2.

Morning Crow 2.

If you find yourself in Santa Fe before July 23, stop in at the Gerald Peters Gallery to see my show. You will see “Harken” in person. It is sold but I am sending the gallery several more pieces about the same size based on this design.

Shed skin and feathers by Chris Maynard

Dragon Snake.

Dragon Snake.

I sometimes work with snakeskin in my art as well as feathers. What is the relation of these outer coverings: human skin, snake skin, and feathers? Unlike birds that sheds its feathers about once a year, or a snake that sheds its outer skin about three times a year, we shed our outer skin constantly. About .2 pounds a week. Our shed skin doesn’t look like our outer wrappings like shed snake skins do nor does it appear as beautifully complex structures like feathers. Our shed skin doesn’t end up in art. It gathers as dust in our houses.

What if instead of shedding constantly, we shed our outer layer intact like a snake? Would we have molting days built into our work schedule as days off? Would we keep our sheds as souvenirs like locks of hair? Would we use our skin in art?

I may make a piece using feathers, snake skin, and a background of dead human skin cells gathered as dust. I could mix the dust with a light water based glue like clear acrylic and paint it on paper as a background. But although I find shed snakeskin fascinating, I am slightly revolted seeing human dust when I wipe my finger across the top of a picture frame or look under the couch.

Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe: Solo by Chris Maynard


I am most grateful to the Gerald Peters Gallery and to Maria Hajic who has been supporting me in my art at this Santa Fe gallery for several years. She is working hard on an upcoming show featuring my work. I will be driving there for the opening reception July 24th and an artist talk on the 25th. If you are able to come, mention that you read about the show on my blog and I will give you a shiny feather from the national bird of Nepal.  

Feathered Nests by Chris Maynard

Barn Swallow flying with feather.

Barn Swallow flying with feather.

The 15 pairs of swallows that nest in my barn line their nest with feathers. I place curled, goose body feathers in an open space in front of my studio for them to swoop in and pick up off the ground. They especially like the large ones that are the width of the inside of their nests.

Besides the fun of watching swallows carry off these feathers which are sometimes longer than themselves, I feel like I am doing a good deed because these birds’ feathered nests are twice as successful at nests not lined with feathers.

That’s because the newborn birds have naked skin like us. Would you rather lie in a bed of grass or mud or a bed of feathers? It makes sense that feathering a nest helps eggs hatch by keeping the birds warm. The feathers also reduce parasites in the nest. I’m not sure exactly how.

I enjoyed reading through some of the studies but usually just skim and read the abstracts. Mostly people don’t find earth-shattering discoveries, but there are interesting little bits of knowledge that are gleaned from each study.

Making a Large Feather Carving by Chris Maynard

Blackbird Melodies.

Blackbird Melodies.

Chris and Grant working on Blackbird Melodies.

Chris and Grant working on Blackbird Melodies.

At 36 by 55 inches, Blackbird Melodies is one of my larger pieces. I waited until I had help to make this and it arrived in the form of Evergreen College intern Grant Walker. One week, we made the background of acid-neutral foamcore and a four-foot wide roll of beautiful thick Fabriano cotton paper. The next week, early on the morning of the day we were to begin, I was just finishing the design. To get there, I had sketched a lot of ideas, different bird song shapes and sketches. Nothing came close to looking right. Grant was due to arrive in a couple of hours and I wanted to begin laying out a 55 inch long design then. It is the best and hardest part of creativity, making something that has never been made before. The hard part is not being certain of a direction while experimenting and trying out ideas and discarding most of them as awful. The worst part is not knowing that the end result will be successful. The best part is having faith that success will result. The very best is when everything works out. Which is what seemed to be happening with this piece. After hours of tring out ideas on paper and not having a clue whether or not I was close to a solution, everything fell into place in a matter of a split second “aha.”

Since this post happens every two weeks, the next post will show the final piece with thoughts about its design.  

Perspectives, Part 2 by Chris Maynard

Pacific Wanderer.

Pacific Wanderer.

Continuing from the last blog post which explored how we can’t really know how other people and animals experience the world but we can guess through behavior and through art...

One of the biggest perspective shifts our culture has had in the past 50 years is that blue earth globe image the astronauts sent from their spacecraft from twenty eight thousand miles in 1972. Birds don’t fly that high, but I am guessing that their perspective of the earth is quite different from ours based on flying and where they fly.

So I am making a series of pieces with the earth carved out of feathers. Funny thing was, images from the perspective of looking down on earth from the angle of the middle of the Pacific Ocean were rare. I wanted to show my version of the perspective of an albatross who spends it’s life flying over the huge expanses of the southern oceans.

Perspectives by Chris Maynard



You see the world in one way and someone else sees it differently. How can we really know the way someone else experiences the world? Sure, we can guess based on facial features and what we know of a person from our experience and what they tell us, but how can we really know?  It makes me curious about people because it is a mystery; only each person knows their own experience.

The same kind of a mystery happens with other living things like birds. They don’t talk but they do give us many behavior clues if we watch. In a way, birds share more similarities with us than differences, like a nervous system, blood, bones, heart and lungs, eating equipment, skin, and reproductive organs; heads and legs and feet and necks. They see with their eyes and hear with their ears. They also have a few things that are different, the parts that we tend to focus on and which usually cause us to think that we are mostly different.

So if I think that I share most of the same attributes with birds, it is a link. This makes me curious about how they experience the world because they do have some remarkable differences based on the structure of their eyes and brains and based on seeing their surroundings from the air. So I explore that curiosity with art, but it is only a guess. Because only the birds know.

Angelo Musco's Feather of Human Bodies by Chris Maynard

Angelo Musco feather.

Angelo Musco feather.

Are feathers delicate? They float on the air, they weigh practically nothing. Yet they are intricately composed of the toughest of animal materials, doing the hard work of keeping a bird warm, dry, and aloft for a year, until new ones grow in and the old ones shed.

So I am intrigued by Angelo Musco’s  photograph of a feather made out of hundreds of human bodies. “I call it the ‘Paradox of Lightness’ because there is this strength and power that comes from this community of thousands of interwoven bodies, yet it is a feather,” said Musco. “Ironically it looks effortless and elegant but it is the result of a coordinated and painstakingly long process.”  “The image seems so light and effortlessly floating in the air,” he said. “It is a quiet, suspended moment you first see, but as you get closer and go into the piece you find a complex and completely unexpected world.”

From First Cut to Last by Chris Maynard

This 15-inch turkey tail feather offered up all its parts that were not shorebirds. I like cutting turkey tail feathers because the feather is thin. Being a tail feather, itdoesn’t have to be very strong or thick to support flight.  Wing feathers are harder to cut usually because they have to be thicker. For flight feathers, each barb where it branches off the shaft is kind of like a deep steel I-beam.

Pigeons, again by Chris Maynard

Capercaillie Pigeon Park.

Capercaillie Pigeon Park.

Several years ago, I asked several traveling friends to bring me back a pigeon tail feather from each major city they visited. I wanted to make a piece of art using these feathers from all over the world since this pigeon, originally from Europe, has established itself in cities everywhere. It is the most familiar bird in the world.

So when I travel to New York City, I get discouraged when I hear people calling them “rats with wings”. This perspective conflicts with my image of a person happily feeding pigeons, surrounded by these flying and strutting birds. Sure, pigeons cause minor inconvenience but isn’t it better to make room to share our world with other living things than hate them for causing us minor inconvenience? Especially in the city where we have otherwise almost completely changed wild animals’ living spaces to suit our needs?

I have not yet made that piece using all the pigeon feathers, but Ric Michel of Ric Michel Fine Art in New York City, recently asked for a larger, three-foot version of an earlier piece I had made using pigeon tail feathers, so I used a much larger feather—from a turkey-sized grouse from Siberia. I made it to honor pigeons and it made me happy to send it to the big city.