Another way to have fun…

What springtime activity costs next to nothing, requires little or no travel and no electronics, brings both the joys of flight and interaction with wildlife, and does something good for creatures?

Ingredients:

  • A ten-foot, one-inch-wide plastic pipe.
  • A bag of 2 to 6 inch-long curved body feathers from a goose or a swan or the larger feathers from a duck. Turkey or chicken feathers will do. One-inch to six inches long.

Part one…

Begin by scattering a handful of the smaller feathers on a cleared open space. A driveway or closely cropped grass is a good bet.

In my area, if barn, tree, or violet green swallows are building their nests nearby, they will find the feathers and swoop down to pick them up to line their nests. Nests with feathers, I read, have a higher success rate for hatching and rearing young than for those nests without feathers.  If this is the case, you are doing a good deed.

violet-green-swallow-feather-falling

Once they have found your treasure trove of nesting materials and they know they can count on you for a continuing supply, they regularly come back for more. In return, you can count on them to be there for the next step.

Part two…

This is the time to bring out your ten-foot tube.   Put a feather in the top end of the tube, raise it vertically, and blow the feather out. The birds will have their chance as the feather slowly floats on the air current.  Swallows greatly prefer grabbing their feathers in the air than to swooping headfirst toward a feather lying on the ground.

If you have them, start with two-inch feathers. Once the birds work up the courage and skill to grab these, you can work up to bigger and bigger curved feathers. These bird’s bodies, head to tail are only about 4 or 5 inches long, so a seven inch feather is a challenge to fly with, but they do. It is a bit clumsy at first and they will let go and re-grab the feather several times. That is unless another bird doesn’t get it first. If it does, a chase is on.

It’s a great photo opportunity if you have a fast lens, are quick and lucky, and take a lot of shots, most which will be misses—these birds fly and swoop fast! I would like to figure out how to capture the action on video but am nowhere near the cameraman I would need to be. Please tell me if you know a technique that can video-capture these swallows on the fly, or if  you have seen it done. Is it even possible?

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Why I Find Feathers Alluring

Written for Center for Humans and Nature, May 4, 2015

Growing up, three bothersome younger sisters drove me to seek beauty, knowledge, solace, fun, and wonder in the big woods surrounding our home. This was in a rapidly suburbanizing area just east of Seattle. I remember, at 14, crouching by an overgrown ditch along a busy road, watching a foot-long trout, motionless in the clear water, occasionally flicking out to catch an insect. Even during those early explorations, I remember feeling the enormity of life and my small place in it.

Then came the bulldozers and construction. The ditch disappeared. I doubt if anyone else had a clue about the community of creatures that was destroyed. Most called it “development” but I saw it as a kind of un-development. I felt tremendously sad and have continued to feel this sadness the last 30 years as this sort of thing happens again and again. The feeling keeps following me as it follows many of us as we sift through the losses.

This feeling of awe and wonder as well as sadness has shaped my life’s work. I became a biologist and worked on various conservation advocacy projects, which exhausted me. I also worked for a long time as an environmental regulator, which, sometimes to my chagrin, was a profession geared toward asking, “How can we find a path through the regulations for this project go ahead?”

My heart remained absorbed with the beauty of the world. When I look at a bird, feel the wind, or even gaze at my own hand, I am enthralled. I wondered: how could I inspire this feeling in others?

Now, as a full time artist, I limit myself to a single medium. Any number of natural forms can foster appreciation for the natural world. I chose to use a rather unusual form: feathers. Ever since the head bird-keeper let me pick up pheasant and flamingo feathers at the zoo when I was twelve, I’ve seen feathers as reminders that I share the world with other creatures. Birds grow them, use them, and shed them. Yet when we find them, they have kept some of the essential qualities of the birds they came from like hints of flight, warmth, and beauty.

feathers from many species of starlings. photo: Chris Maynard

 

We have used feathers as symbols for millennia, everywhere on Earth. Feathers, to us, mean flight, transcendence, bridges between worlds, and escape. They are in our dreams. They are full of metaphor. As humans, we crave meaning. We find it through art and science, through religion, culture, myth, and our own experiences and imaginations.

These are not heart lipped faces. The patterns help a grouse to hide. Photo: Chris Maynard

 

I sometimes blink, finding that I have been holding a feather and staring at it for the last half hour. I’ve been marveling at its lightness, wondering where it has been, and thinking, “How did this feather serve to keep the bird warm and dry, or help it to fly?” I might drop the feather to see it swirl, spin, or flutter to the ground. I find myself in the middle of three spaces of perception: wonder and awe at the form; a small sense of connection to the feather’s original owner; and the desire for creative construction, with the accompanying thought, “How can I manipulate this into elegant, compelling, and meaningful art that will make people stop and wonder?” I view each individual feather as a small bit of perfection, a structure that art cannot enhance. Even so, I cut bird shapes out of feathers to augment the meanings.

The Dive. 18 x 12 inches. 2015. Chris Maynard

 

It is feathers’ forms that draw me in. Certainly, feathers can have lovely colors and varied, interesting patterns. But the shapes and complex structures of the feathers are what makes them unique in the animal world. A museum curator recently told me that they were considering excluding my work from a museum tour around the United States. When I asked why, she said that the feathers were too delicate so she feared they would be damaged. This is a common misperception. We confuse lightness with delicacy. Feathers are made of protein, keratin. It is the same material our fingernails and a bird’s claws and beak are made of. They are made to be tough. At the same time, feathers don’t weigh much. They are light enough for a bird to fly at freeway speeds. They protect a bird for an entire year before they’re molted. They are a marvel of structural engineering.

The shapes of feathers drive my art. To honor feathers and the birds they came from, I don’t flatten them to a background but instead, keep their gentle curves by setting them apart from their background. Each flight feather curves a bit to form an airfoil. Each body feather, say of a duck, curves front to back and a bit from side to side to fit the bird’s body, like shingles covering a house’s roof. The body feathers’ curved shape also lets birds more fully expand or contract the feathers to provide less or more warmth. They fit together perfectly, overlapping to let both air and water slide smoothly along.

Croce Ircle. 20 x 30 inches. 2015. Chris Maynard

 

These are some of the reasons I find feathers alluring. It is a curious phenomenon: limiting oneself to a single focus can open up an enormous world of awe and exploration. So in my art, I find myself cutting and designing each piece, striving to capture an essence of a bird or what they do, like fly.

Life is harsh. We are born to die. To live, we kill things to eat. Creatures and habitats perish so we can have things, get where we are going, and pursue our many dreams. Part of me cries out for gentleness where beauty and wonder have the upper hand. Feathers do this for me. They serve their functions while gracing the bodies of the birds and are gently let go when a bird sheds. Yet they keep their form, complexity, and beauty. They are gifts from the birds.

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Feathers Wasted

I made this video thinking about my January 11th blog entry. We eat about 50 billion chickens a year! But we do not eat their feathers. Historically, we have not known what to do with all the chicken feathers.  A chicken is about 6 per cent feathers by weight.  That is 8-10 billion pounds of feathers a year! Most go to landfills but some are tilled into the soil as a low-grade fertilizer.

A friend gave me several 50 pound feed bags full of large shed wing feathers from his crowned cranes. Some, the “B”-grades got “planted” in a garden.

 

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Shows how and why I make art with feathers

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How to fix a tattered, frayed feather

Kingfisher-Preen-close3WEBwmOften your feather is not in the best shape. It can be trampled or tossed about by wind or wave and become frayed and tattered looking. The feather’s barbs and barbules (branches coming off the shaft) have little microscopic Velcro-type hooks which usually keep the them together and make a flat and even surface, the vane. But the hooks can come apart.

You can often fix even really tattered feathers with steam. Though steam won’t repair a feather with worn down parts or missing pieces, it fixes feathers with barbs that don’t zip back together, repairs twisted and wavy feathers, and straightens out unnatural bends and curls.

A steam iron works well, but I like to use the steaming spout of a teapot. Just be careful—use a glove so you don’t get scalded. You are really using a combination of heat and steam. Move the feather slowly back and forth in the steaming spout for a few seconds. Pinch the barbs next to the shaft and gently squeeze, then pull away toward the feather’s edge–in the same direction a bird preens.  This youtube video link gives you the idea in about a minute and a half, though it goes for eight minutes.

 

 

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Duck Rain

Rain_Duck_WEBwm

Our last long spell of rain lasted for weeks. I put on my rubber boots and raincoat to watch the ducks swim. Their bodies, wrapped inside warm and waterproof shingles of feathers, were warm and dry. Even though I wore a sweaters and long johns, rubber boots, rain jacket hat and hood, I felt not as well equipped.

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Where do birds go when they die?

 

Loon_Star_cWEBwm

If heaven is something a bird ever imagines, I don’t think it would be a place with clouds. Clouds are part of birds’ lives, they fly around in them. Especially during our rainy-cloudy season. We can’t fly, so those of us (probably who live in dryer climates) place fluffy clouds along with angel wings and feathers in the heavens, or at least as bridges between worlds.

I was taking a nice warm morning indoor shower, thinking of these things and thinking how I could use feather in art to describe a bird’s heaven. I recently sketched a series with cloud/rain themes. My inspiration usually arrives as intuition rather than a specific meaning I want to convey. But in the shower, it was as if the clouds suddenly cleared and the stars appeared. I thought, “If a bird had a heaven in its yearnings, it is stars, not clouds.”

This thought, I admit, was probably heavily influenced by the several weeks of constant rain and cloud cover in my area of the world. The sun did shine for an hour yesterday one morning. Like cave-dwelling dwarves, people came out of their houses, squinting and shading their eyes, happy to see beyond the clouds into the heavens.

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A Beating Heart

cockatoo_heart_WEBwmHappy Valentine’s Day!

Who knows if heart symbol-shapes mean the same thing to birds as they do to us. Probably not. Even though birds’ hearts are similar in shape and function to ours, they are relatively bigger. They pump more blood and usually beat faster–a lot faster, 1250 beats per minute for an active hummingbird. But when a hummingbird rests at night, the heartbeat goes down to only 50 beats a minute! I wonder how much faster a hummingbird heart beats when it wakes up, and sees its mate, its valentine.

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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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