Monday, April 9, 2018

The Thing with Feathers

Watercolor Drawing of feathers

“`Hope’ is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words--
And never stops—at all—

Feathers: Fashion & The Fight for Wildlife” on view at the New York Historical Society from April 6-July 15,  marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918.  The exhibit presents examples of the use of feathers and actual birds in decorative wear.  The widespread use of feathers for decoration led to the MBTA legislation which prohibits the hunting, killing, trading, and shipping of migratory birds, their feathers, and their eggs. Since its passing, the MBTA has been administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whose power extends to the regulation of the commercial plume/feather trade, a thriving trade in the early 20thcentury that by 1918 had already decimated the population and in some cases led to the extinction of many American bird species. The restrictions had a huge effect on New York City, which--as the US fashion capital-- was the center of the US feather trade producing hats as well as other clothing, decorative items, and ephemera constructed of feathers. The exhibit honors activists like George Bird Grinnell, the founder of the Audubon Society; Olive Thorne Miller, Lilli Lehmann, Florence Merriam Bailey, Mary S. Sage, and Mabel Osgood Wright who worked to ensure the passing of legislation protecting birds from slaughter and suggested that people respect the lives of birds and instead use ribbons and flowers to decorate their clothing and homes.  

The exhibit and the anniversary, as well as our present moment in history, urge us to think about conservation, about feathers themselves and to reflect on the birds whose bodies they cover.  We can think about the different types, shapes, colors and iridescence of bird feathers. The life of every bird in the world depends on its coat of feathers-- a tiny Ruby-Throated Hummingbird has about 1,000 feathers and a Mute Swan up to 25,000. Much of a bird’s life is spent maintaining and caring for its feathers. Feathers are truly one of nature’s miracles and every bird knows this: 

Feathers can conceal or attract.  They can be vibrantly colored without using pigment.  They can store water or repel it.  They can snap, whistle, hum, vibrate, boom, and whine. They’re a near-perfect airfoil and the lightest, most efficient insulation ever discovered.” Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson

I took a course with Mary Christiansen at the NYBG in drawing feathers. She was careful in obtaining feathers from hunting websites where feathers and even wings of game birds are legally sold to help teach dogs how to hunt. These feathers helped me as an artist to learn the structure of a feather.  Just as with eggs, all feathers are not the same.  Some grow in tracks for the wings or the body shape.  Some are downy and keep the bird warm or cool. They serve different purposes for the bird. See the structure drawing to see the parts of the feather—all feathers from the largest to the tiniest, from the stiffest to the fluffiest have the same basic structure.
Drawing of feather structure

Drawing them is a challenge. It is important to capture the softness as well as maintain the structure of feathers in addition to the colors, textures, and shapes. Part of drawing birds as well as drawing feathers is to attempt to make them appear light yet solid, strong yet delicate.  Drawing feathers, eggs, and birds themselves for me and this blog is a way of reminding myself and any reader of how vital each of these small lives is.  And reading about these activists show us how important our role can be in making sure that their lives are protected and valued. 

 Yes, “hope” is the thing with feathers, but at this time in history, we may need to do more than hope to ensure that the 1918 MBTA and other conservation measures are supported and continue their important work.  

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Oology! It's a very special day!

 Today is Easter Sunday, Passover, Palm Sunday for Orthodox Christians, and April Fool’s Day—a rare confluence of events.  It is also the day after a blue moon, which is a second full moon in a month such as occurred in March 2018—on March 1st and 31st.  Our next full moon is April 29.  Thinking about the roundness of the glowing moon draws me to the subject of this post—eggs or the study of eggs--oology.

Eggs, dyed colorful eggs, are a part of the tradition of Easter and many other religions at spring time.  Eggs symbolize life, fertility, spring, and the future.  They are a tiny piece of hope.  In the Christian religion, they are meant to symbolize Jesus emerging from the tomb and being resurrected—in a sense breaking through the seal of the shell and coming back to life.

Drawing eggs, like the 90 plus eggs I drew for The Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City, was a lesson in close observation of something that we may think of as simple or not think of at all but which in fact contains a mystery.  People dye eggs for holidays, but wild birds do it by themselves. For despite what we think, wild bird eggs are not all white, not all ovoid, and not all the same size as you can see in my drawing.  Wild bird eggs range in color from the white or brown we know from the supermarket and the turquoise we know from robin’s eggs to a rainbow of greens, reds, oranges, blues, tans, beiges, and even black.  It is also interesting that eggs that look white to the human eye may have bolder colors under ultraviolet light, which helps birds identify their eggs.  Birds’ eyes are tetrachromatic—they have four photoreceptor cells so they see not only the colors we do but also in the ultraviolet range, which we do not.   Calcium carbonate produces the white color of the shells while biliverdin produces the blue and green colors and protoporphyrin produces the yellow, red, brown and orangey colors. The two pigments together can make purples and exotic greens. 

Eggs come in lots of shapes.  Oval-shaped eggs are the most common, but many owls lay completely round eggs.  Shorebirds lay pointed pear-shaped eggs perhaps preventing them from rolling away thereby keeping them in place in the nest.  Some of the colors along with squiggles, specks, splotches, and streaks may help to camouflage the eggs so that predators do not steal them.  Wild bird eggs are very attractive to squirrels, rats, reptiles, and snakes as well as to other birds and for good reason.  Eggs are rich in good nutrients as many of us already know. Bird eggs are amniotic, which means they have a hard shell with a porous membrane for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.  The yolk is the part with the fat and protein that nourishes the growing chick. The shell is rich in calcium and parent birds will often eat the empty shells from their own chicks to both replenish the calcium in their body and to protect the nest from predators who might spy the shells. 

Bird eggs range in size from the hummingbirds with the tiniest eggs to the ostriches with the largest eggs. There was a time when humans collected wild bird eggs for their beauty and value, but it is not legal to do so anymore, so we have to admire them in museums and books. In fact, we need to discourage the removal of eggs from nests no matter how beautiful they are.  Many formerly common bird species are at risk from predators, even our beloved cats, and from environmental change.  The best thing we can do for the birds we love is to look, wonder, and ooh and aah about the mysteries contained in the shell, the nest, and the birds that hatch. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Pair of Pears for the Ides

Red and Green D'Anjou Pears
March 15th, which is best-known as the Ides of March an ominous day for Caesar in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, is also on a more pleasurable note National Pears Hélène Day—not a holiday that runs trippingly off our tongues, but a day when we can celebrate a fruit that many of us love to look at, draw, and eat.  Originally from Asia, pears, have been around a long time.  Homer in the Odyssey referred to them as “a gift of the gods.”  The thousands of varieties of pears that we know today in the United States come to us largely from Washington, Oregon, and California.  These pears are the progeny of those brought along the Lewis and Clark Trail to Oregon and Washington in the 1800s. While early attempts to grow pears in the Northeast did not fare well, the combination of light, of rich volcanic soils, and of the more European-like weather of the Northwest turned out to be an ideal environment for pears. We are thankful for this confluence of factors to produce the juicy, delectable, flavorful fruit so many of us enjoy.  Not only that but they are healthy eating: pears are a good source of Vitamins A and C as well as antioxidants, fiber and potassium. The green and red D’Anjou pears, Pyrus communis, in my drawing not only inspired my drawing, but they also ended up as part of a salad (the green one) and as a delicious dessert (the red one)—not quite as sweet and tasty as Pears Helene, but good anyway.

But since I mentioned it, you will have guessed that National Pears Hélène Day comes with a recipe and it is quite decadent—warm poached pears, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate sauce.  It was created by the famous chef Auguste Escoffier and was named after the Offenbach opera, “La belle Hélène.”  I’m not sure if you have to listen to the music while you eat it, but it might add a nice touch.  I’m including Nigella Lawson’s delicious take on this very special dish:  Pears Belle Helene recipe.

My drawing is a combination watercolor of the fruit and a salt painting for the bottom half of the drawing.  To do that, I watered down the paper (covering the area where I was going to paint the pears) and dropped in a dark greyish blue that I had mixed from my watercolors.  Then when it was wet, I sprinkled table salt and rock salt on the paper and let it dry.  Next, I rubbed off the salt and added a few more splotches of color to even out the page.  I got this idea from Mindy Lighthipe’s online watercolor class, which is filled with wonderful tips on color and ways to create background interest. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Happy Daylight Savings Time 2018!

Black-capped Chickadee

Here comes the sun. After 10 months, I am happy to be back drawing and blogging on the natural world.  The first day of Daylight Savings Time is always special to me because we are moving closer to spring. Today through our tired haze, we begin to notice changes not only in the length of day but in the creatures in our environment. Spring brings the excitement of migrating birds, but in this period of transition, it’s also good to think about those steadfast birds that stayed with us through snow and sleet and brought us a bit of feathered magic. 

The Audubon Society has named 2018 the Year of the Bird—a year to look more closely at the birds in our neighborhoods and even to go looking for more birds in parks, botanical gardens, woods, and forests. When you do this, you are likely to see the bird that I have drawn here: the Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus.  It is one of the 10 most-reported birds from the 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) that takes place every February and one of the 13 most-common backyard feeder species.  The black-capped chickadees typically eat suet, seeds, peanuts, and insects.  Researchers have found that the birds cache seeds to eat later and they remember thousands of hiding places.  You may need binoculars and cameras to get a good look at shyer birds, but the black-capped chickadee is pretty easy to spot and fun to watch and draw. 

The black-capped chickadee, the state bird of Massachusetts and Maine, is a songbird whose song in most of North America is “fee-bee” or “hey sweetie.”  When alarmed the call changes to “chickadee-dee-dee” and according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All about Birds website:, the more alarmed they are, the more “dee” notes are added to the call. And when things get really bad they make a high-pitched “see” call and the birds know to freeze in position until they hear the “chick-a-dee” signifying “all clear.”  Pretty impressive defense strategy for birds tinier than sparrows.
 I did this watercolor as part of a class on bird illustration that I took last year at the NYBG with Katie Lee,, a wonderful botanical and wild life illustrator.   She teaches classes in Maine and occasionally comes down to NY to teach at the Botanical Gardens.  She is an exceptional teacher, and I was fortunate to take her class.