There is a kind of bird from Africa that you can make color from its feathers. I read on the internet that the Turaco’s feather pigment is water soluble. It is hard to believe since this bird lives in tropical forests where I could just picture its feathers dripping red and green in a rainstorm. So I took one of their beautifully red-colored wing feathers (shed at a zoo) and put it in a glass of water to leave overnight. Actually, it wasn’t that simple because these (and most) feather surface structures repel water. This feather just popped up to float on the surface. So I squeezed and kneaded the feather until the surface tension broke and the water finally soaked into the feather. Next morning I checked on the cup and found the water to be perfectly clear. Hmmmm.
This feather’s red pigment is the only red feather color known to be copper based. The bird’s green pigment, also copper based, is the only know true green chemical pigment in birds—the greens of most birds being a combination of yellow carotene-type pigments and blue surface structures.
Then I added a small amount of dish soap to the cup and immediately red started coming out of the feather into the water. After about an hour, the feather turned a light grey color and the water looked like cherry juice. I did soak a green feather in soapy water but the green remained in the feather and the water clear. The next step is to evaporate most of the water and see if I can make a watercolor to use in a background for a shadowbox using these feathers.
Just like us, a bird’s body and feathers are assembled from what it eats. I find it a wondrous piece of the natural world that a wren can make feathers from digesting the bugs it eats just as our bodies can amass themselves from milk when we’re babies and later from food like rice and beans or burgers and fries.
Recently, I awoke at night with this as new and prolific topic for feather shadowboxes: birds and what they eat. I was excited and quickly sketched thirty or so before I made myself stop. I felt a pang of frustration because there are endless design possibilities for this theme but I could not possibly find enough time to make all but a small portion of them.
Lying in bed after my sketch fest, my amplified awareness of the assembling of life and disassembling at death cycle of eating was overwhelming and I needed to lie back down and breathe deeply to let these thoughts incorporate into my cells. Then I fell asleep for the rest of the night.
A visual artist is often profoundly aware of the ways that colors enhance the beauty of the world.
As a human you have 3 kinds of cone receptors in your eyes allowing you to see the primary colors. A bird has 4! They can see ultraviolet and violet colors that we can’t. Plus their eyes are made in other ways different than ours which means they can see more subtle differences in the primary colors and the colors appear sharper, more vivid. It makes sense that feathers have adapted to birds’ visual abilities which means that for a bird, feathers show even more colors and patterns than we know. So imagine my disappointment with my human eyes and desire to see like a bird when I learned more about what the world looks like to them.
A black and white feather such as this Merganser’s may appear to a bird as a shimmering wonder of violets and blues.
I am fascinated with starlings in part because the only kind where I live was introduced, an immigrant. Since they are considered a pest by many, I tend to notice their beauty, especially the feathers. It is the nature of my perspective as an artist.
Ours in North America aren’t the only starlings. As a matter of fact, over 100 species of them grace this world with their different voices, social behavior, and their feathers. I had the opportunity this week to photograph 20 species worth of their feathers. They range from 5 to 45 millimeters each in length and average about 25 millimeters which is about an inch long. The metallic feathers only reflect light from a single angle. In the final image, these feathers are at that angle, at their shiniest. Looking at them from any other direction, they look mostly grayish. The image shows the feathers at their peak–like an outdoor magazine that only shows the biggest fish caught or a fashion advertisement showing an unattainably beautiful face. But unlike the beautiful faces, the feathers here aren’t enhanced in photoshop.
Each feather was positioned and lit just right, photographed and then combined in what ended up in a file big enough to print a 10 foot image in fine detail.
What if birds had to shop for feather-care products like people shop for hair products? What a confusing array of choices they would have to confront! Thinking about the time I spend combing, washing, drying and fussing over the my head’s small patch of hair makes me more appreciative of the effort a bird goes through to keep the feathers in good shape all over its body. No matter how vain I might be about my hair, feathers are infinitely more important to a bird than my hair is to me.
The swallows in my barn groom their feathers with their bills and sometimes with their feet, especially when they are shedding old feathers to make way for new ones growing in. They nibble every feather from its base upward to get them aligned just right. They dislodge small feathers as they shed. Then they take a break to shake dust and feathers loose. Often they take to the wing after a preening session and give themselves a thorough shake while in mid-air, sending a plume of dust and feathers behind them.
Preening is the topic of a small series of feather shadowboxes I am making. This crow piece was the first; Macaws were next. A preening Kingfisher will follow.
An artist needs to eat too, so why did I just let Microsoft use twelve feather shadowbox images as their screensaver downloads free of charge? My mission here is to share my appreciation and excitement about life. I have chosen to do this through the complex, diverse and beautiful world of feathers. Screensavers images are a pretty good way to share since we stare at our electronic devices so much. And people do sometimes buy prints and originals from first having seen the images as screensavers.
So have at it: download the second series of a dozen screensavers (or the first series) for your PC computer or android phone or tablet.
I seem to be making a series of feather shadowboxes with the theme of reflection. There’s the real thing, the real bird–and then there is its reflection. Like shadows, I tend to pay less attention to reflections but when I do, it’s a whole different and interesting world. Then what I see is formed by the real bird and the little disturbances happening in its environment. It’s a story of wind and water and movement. It’s like my thought process, another kind of reflecting—it depends on the state of my mind–the recent disturbances that affect what I’m thinking. Anyway, it is fun to play around with this in my art.
When finished and mounted, this piece will be entitled ‘Two Phalaropes’. Phalaropes are birds that swim in tight circles twisting the water below them into a funnel that sucks small edible creatures up toward their eager beaks. The materials are two large Capercaillie tail feathers.
Sitting very still, high in the Uinta mountains earlier this month, I watched a ruffed grouse slowly forage within a boot’s length of me. At first I stared at a spot 10 feet away under the juniper and aspen where an occasional rustle emerged. Nothing. Only when the grouse moved did I see it.
Like a lot of birds that rely on feather patterns to hide, the decorations on each feather are interesting. But together on the bird, they create high-end concealment. If the makers of camouflage clothing for hunting and warfare took note of what birds wear, I would buy a jacket and pants in Ruffed Grouse.
Feathers on the bodies of birds overlap each other–just their tips show. Depending on the shape of the tips, they are seen on the bird as repeating diamond, triangle, or sometimes rectangle shapes. My art aims to honor both birds and their feathers but since I work with single feathers off the birds, this M.C. Escher-ish piece is a reconstruction and recognition of the patterned arrangements feathers make on birds .
This piece also tells a story of two separate but connected bird species. The first is of an American Turkey. The second is of the only other species of turkey there is: the Ocellated Turkey from Yucatan and parts of Central America.
We use our hands to scrub our skin and otherwise groom ourselves. Plus we have tools to help, like hairbrushes. Birds only have their beaks plus they have a lot more to take care than just skin – thousands of feathers. Without preening, the feathers would get dirtier by the day. They would not be able to repel water and would look ugly and dull as well. Without preening feathers barbs would come apart and stay apart and eventually the bird would not be able to fly. Mites would have the upper hand and eat the feathers starting with the down next to the bird’s skin. Feathers would clump together. The bird would be cold.
So birds spend hours each day preening and they only have their bills to do it. I thought it interesting to film this Spoonbill preening because most birds use a pointed beak rather than a spoon-shaped one. The Spoonbill looks surprisingly efficient.