Friday, October 23, 2015

Ginkgo-In one consent

Drawing of Ginkgo leaf from Field Guide
It happened-in one consent Nov 7 2015

A couple of weeks ago, I drew some of the golden ginkgo leaves that I found on Riverside Drive, but now I see that most of the other ginkgo trees still have their green leaves, and I wondered about that.  The story about the ginkgos is that all of them drop their leaves on the same day or very close to that.   "The Consent" by poet Howard Nemerov, which I excerpt below, is about the ginkgo phenomenon:

“Late in November, on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone: the golden and
the green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.

But I am noticing something different this year.  Most of the leaves are green and look more like the one I drew for the Field Guide not the ones I found and drew a few weeks back.  So I asked tree expert Wayne Cahilly at the New York Botanical Gardens.  He wrote back: “Gingko has male and female trees which color and drop about a week apart in most years. With the dry summer that gap may have widened.” It is more than two weeks now, and I will keep watching for that night when “In one consent,” the leaves will drop. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Sweet as Sap?

American Sweet Gum, Liquidambar styraciflua, Liquid Amber seems like a perfect name for a leaf that turns into a warm golden amber color, as well as red, purple, and exquisite mixed colors.  The second meaning of the name is equally important: the sweet resinous sap that has been used medicinally is a kind of liquid amber too.  But I am drawing the amber-colored leaf that I found while visiting family in Cranbury, New Jersey on Saturday, October 17.  I have long loved the Sweet Gum for its star-shaped often 5-pointed leaves that are an artist’s delight.  The tree itself is tall with alternate, palmate (shaped like the human palm) leaves.  I was surprised to read that the genus Liquidambar has a long history from the Cretaceous to the Quaternary era 99.7 to 0.781 million years ago.  It died out in some of the areas where it originally lived because of glaciation and cold weather.  But today it is doing well in the east coast of North America.  However, one cannot write about the Sweet Gum without mentioning one drawback for those who like to walk barefoot or to walk their dogs near one when it is producing seed pods. The spiky pods can cause a lot of pain if you or your dog step on them, but they do provide seeds that are loved by many small hungry songbirds as the days get shorter and colder.  Those seed pods are not only painful to step on but also to draw, and while I may be a sap, I am going to challenge myself to try to draw one for a later post. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Well, who's Perfect?

Drawing of Northern Cardinals by Trudy Smoke

We’ve all read about how certain bird breeds mate for life.  Northern cardinals, Cardinalis cardinalis,  like the ones in my drawing from the Field Guide form breeding pairs that may last one season or several.  However, even though they stay together for that time period, researchers have found that “between one in 10 and one in three eggs in a female cardinal’s nest has genes that don’t match her partner, and less commonly, they don’t even match her own.”  Still commitment wins.  The parents stay together and raise the young. They are “socially monogamous,” which means that the male has a role in parenting:  he defends the nest, brings food to the nestlings, and tends to the fledglings.  But cheating happens even with these paired couples: some females cheat on the male and males may father eggs in other nests.  They can’t even make sure who’s the daddy with those DNA kits that we see advertised all over town and on the web.  But observing cardinals together nonetheless sends us a message of love and commitment, and that was why I decided to draw a pair.  The difference in appearance between the male and female is also important to identification and to me in drawing them.  And as for their behavior--You know what Joe E. Brown said in one of the best movie last lines ever in Some Like It Hot, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Ooh ooh Oology

Oology is the science of eggs. Birds’ eggs come in a huge array of colors even though most of us see only the brown and white eggs in the supermarket.  It has been illegal to collect wild birds’ eggs in the United States since 1918 with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  If you want to see wild bird eggs, you have to go to a museum like the Chicago Field Museum, the source of the 600 eggs shown in my colleague Mark Hauber’s extraordinary The Book of Eggs.  Or you can see 90 New York City bird eggs in the Field Guide.  New technologies enable biologists, chemists, and ornithologists to learn more about bird eggs.  But as an artist, it is color, shape, and variety that most fascinate me.  Eggs are basically made up of calcium carbonate, which looks white to the human eye.  Birds’ eyes are tetrachromatic—they have four photoreceptor cells so they see color in the UV range not perceptible to us.  The egg colors come from two basic pigments: biliverdins, which make the blue-green colors and protoporphyrins, which make the yellow, red, brown and other rusty colors.  The two pigments together can form colors like violet and exotic greens.  So it is that within one species a remarkable variety of egg colors can be found.  The photo shown here was shared with me by Mark Hauber; it shows 12 Common Murre, Uria aalge, eggs.  These birds live in huge colonies and it is thought that the color variety allows parents to pick out their own egg from thousands on a rock cliff.  It’s clear that there is a lot to “ooh” about oology.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Crowing about Crows

The American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos, is remarkable--twice as big as a Blue Jay and two-thirds the size of the Common Raven.  Crows are beautiful, all-black, intelligent birds that are frequently studied by researchers as my post from yesterday points out.  They are social creatures that live in roosts of anywhere from a few hundred to two million. Two million! Crows are known to make and use tools.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology site gives the example of “a captive crow using a cup to carry water over to a bowl of dry mash; shaping a piece of wood and then sticking it into a hold in a fence post in search of food; and breaking off pieces of pine cone to drop on tree climbers near a nest.” They are also wonderful family birds.  As Leslie Day writes, “Crows mate for life.” They share responsibilities.  Both parents build the nest.  The females incubate the eggs, the males bring food, and since they do not breed until they are two to four years old, the young also help their parents raise the nestlings.  Seems like a good system.  Like so many things about them, American Crow eggs are beautiful.  They are about 1 ¾” long and a little more than 1” wide; they vary in color from pale bluish-green to olive-green with blotches of brown and gray toward the large end.  I drew the pale bluish-green color shown here for the Field Guide because I thought it was not only gorgeous but also surprising.  How many people seeing a twiggy nest lined with pine needles and animal hair in the crotch of an evergreen tree would know that the pale bluish eggs inside belong to the American Crow? 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What do crows know?

In the Science section of today’s NT Times, there was an article about crows, about their awareness of the death of one of their species.  The tale was right out of Edgar Allan Poe, but in this case, it involved Seattle, a University of Washington biology experiment, a masked researcher, a taxidermied crow, and a murder of crows eating peanuts and cheese puffs.  The researchers’ question is: “What do crows understand about death?”  Each time the experiment takes place and the researchers show up with the dead crow, the live crows react with hostility mobbing the “corpse-bearing volunteers.”  Mike Rowe, take note-- this might be a good dirty job for you, but it is one that I personally would not volunteer to do.  At the end of the article, it said that as far as we know so far only crows, chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and scrub jays respond this way to death.  It makes me think these researchers have never had dogs or cats or even other birds.  My sister told me about how her friend’s parakeet responded to the death of one of his babies two weeks ago.  The father bird went into mourning and died a few days later.  The mother started pulling out her feathers and remains in distress.  Why is it we humans think that we are the only ones that feel, the only ones that know grief and loss?  I recently lost a colleague who worked with me for many years, and I post this crow’s feather that I drew some time ago with the wish that like birds, we will grieve and anger at her sudden death, and then allow her spirit to fly off into the heavens.

Monday, October 5, 2015

October's golden gift

Ginkgo leaves drawing by Trudy Smoke
Walking along Riverside Drive, I see piles of the golden fan-like leaves of the Ginkgo biloba. This amazing tree is the only living species in its division Ginkgophyta.  It is a living fossil maybe similar to fossils dating back 270 million years, the oldest tree on earth--our link to the age of the dinosaurs.  Some species are thought to be 2,500 years old.  At least one survived Hiroshima. And now many live healthily in an urban environment--my own upper west side neighborhood for example.The leaves of the ginkgo are like no other—fan-shaped with veins radiating out from two veins at the leaf blade—a process called dichotomous venation. Ginkgos are dioecious, which means there are male and female trees.  Males produce pollen cones and females produce fleshy round apricot-like ovules that when stepped on smell like vomit. As you can see in this 16 second video of the two swimming sperm,, they reproduce through motile sperm, like ferns, mosses, and algae.  But from my drawing perspective, they are golden fans, so different to draw than any other leaf.  The radiant, radiating veins have no center rib vein, no side veins.  I draw with awe.