Fairy Wren Tattoo
October 30, 2007
An earlier post in this blog had a drawing I did of an Austalian male Fairy Wren. I made the drawing for a friend that wanted a tattoo of a wren. Well, she went ahead with it. I hope she doesn't hate me in 15 years. There's always the question of how a drawing will reproduce as a tattoo, but it came out beautifully! The tattoo artist did an excellent job. The color is rich and spot on, and reproduced my line quality superbly.
Sedge Wren - Cistothorus platensis
October 29, 2007
This species at one point was known as the Short-billed Marsh Wren. Sedge Wrens, along with the Marsh Wren, has polygynous breeding habits and is highly nomadic. Its nomadic tendencies may be linked to the instability of its preferred habitat. These habitats are characterized by vegetation that is highly affected by cycles of drying and flooding due to annual fluctuations in seasonal rainfall.
Wrens just look pissed off. It's as though their upturned tails are flicking a perpetual finger. A tiny, brown, buffy inhabitant of reedy marshes, palustris is known for its intricate vocalizations and polygynous mating habits. The polygynous (some males pairing with 2 or more females) behaviour may explain the evolution of their complex singing as a means to obtain resources (territory, mates). Males will even build multiple nests; up to a half dozen "dummy" nests for each nest used by a breeding female. Both sexes of this species have been observed pecking and destroying eggs of other marsh wrens and that of other species. Marsh wrens are often confused with Sedge wrens ( a mistake I made immediately when making specimens of each), but Sedge wrens are a bit smaller and have shorter bills.
It's a handsome species with its elegant tail, white breast, and chestnut wings and back. . It's not one you would stumble across everyday, as they are quite secretive in their habits. Like so many other once common species, Yellow-billed Cuckoos are experiencing a sharp decline in numbers, due to (suprise suprise) habitat loss and pesticide use. Like other cuckoos, such as the Black-billed and Old World cuckoos, americanus will engage in periodic bouts of brood parasitism. This means that they will occasionally lay their eggs in the nests of other species, such as robins, catbirds, and Wood thrushes, to be raised by these unwitting hosts.
Wilson's Bird of Paradise - Cincinnurus respublica
October 23, 2007
This little bird of paradise will be flying aaaaaalll of the way to Mexico City to live with someone there. I created this in trade for a piece of this very talented artist's work. I have gotten some of my favorite art by way of barter! Wilson's blue cap is not feathers but bald, with the exception of the black outlines across the crown. It is said that the blue skin is so vivid that it can be seen at night. The curly tail feathers have violet and silver. I swear I did not make this bird up.
Going, Going, Gone.
October 20, 2007
This week past at the museum was pretty interesting. A student from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Andria, also comes in on Wednesdays for specimen preparation. She comes in two days a week for class credit. She had come in last semester and took a break over the summer. Her interests in art and natural history make for excellent company, and she has become quite adept at making bird skins. She had Dave open up the cabinet that was holding the latestest specimens that were collected from his trip to Malawi. She was quick to point out one of her favorites, a Lilac-breasted Roller, and with good reason: the color was astounding. It looks like a crow that got hit with a color truck from 1985; turquoise, cobalt, lilac, mint green. I'm hoping to do a painting of it. It'll give the new set of watercolors a good workout.
Dave started grabbing specimens from the collection for a presentation he was giving later in the evening. I hovered and nosed around as he carefully laid out some of the poster children of avian extinction: Labrador Duck, Great Auk, Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, and that much debated avian Lazarus, and ghost of primordial Arkansas swamps: Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It was strange to be near an object that was once a living creature, but is now the only evidence of a species forever wiped from the face of the earth. Each met their end either to gross over hunting, habitat loss, or both. An excellent and moving book chronicling the demise of some of the above mentioned is "Hope is the Thing with Feathers" by Christopher Cokinos. The painting of the Passenger pigeon monument, was one I made 5 years ago in a journal during a fall camping trip to Wyalusing State Park along the Mississippi bluffs of southwestern, WI. It must be one of the few (and first?) monuments to commemorate the time and place in which a species ceased to exist in the wild. The very last Passenger pigeon, Martha, died in a Cincinnati zoo in 1914.
October 19, 2007
Everything that I read about this warbler was confirmed first hand by working on a couple at the museum. They are usually described as being non-descript, and that is what sets them apart from other warblers. Their very drabness and lack of distinctive markings is their defining characteristic. They are divided into four groups of subspecies, each defined by geographic location, and subtle color differences: celata, lutescens, orestera, and sordida. The two I worked on were labeled as Vermivora celata. Celata is described as being the dullest in color of all of the subspecies. And indeed, the ones I held were dull olive grey with a wisp of rusty orange faintly staining the crowns. One of the two I prepared, however, had a bright patch of yellow near the base of the tail. Dr. Willard mentioned the possibility of it being another subspecies. Perhaps he thought it could be lutescens, which is the brightest of the subspecies, but is associated with the Pacific coast. I never got around to asking.
Parula americana is a type of wood warbler. The specimens that I had prepared over the summer had lovely bright bands of yellow, with another, smaller band of a rusty orange. According to the Cornell bird guide, there are two distinct poplulations: northern and southern with a conspicuous break in between. They prefer the upper canopy of trees, and will nest in spanish moss or old man's beard lichen.
October 18, 2007
It's been a good week. I completed a big illustration job. It's a book, The Mysterious Benedict Society, that I did illustrations for the cover and chapters. The first book in the series was illustrated by one of my favorite artists: Carson Ellis. The site for the first book can be viewed here. I've been working on it for four months, so it's great to finally have it completed. To celebrate, I bought some sorely needed new paints. I have been relying heavily on a small travel set of watercolors I obtained in Italy 13 years ago. I love them, but alas they are shriveling and crumbling. All of the paintings on this site were created using them. That little set has traveled everywhere with me. I googled the brand, Maimeri, and found a metal set of 24 half pans ( small dried cakes) of watercolor on Blick's Art website. They arrived in the mail today, and I couldn't be happier. Each color pan was individually wrapped in foil. The colors are so yummy. The purity and transparency of the pigments are beautiful. The labels even have little kingfishers on them. Sangue di Drago, has to be the best name for a red. Grazie Italia.
Black-throated Green Warbler
October 15, 2007
Last Wednesday, I prepared about four of these. Black-throated green warblers breed in the coniferous forests of the Northeast. Most of the ones I worked on turned out to be females. The females lack the dark black patch on the throat that distinguish the males. It's unfortunate that so many birds perish coming through urban areas during migration season. There is speculation that some breeds may have already altered their breeding habits in order to compensate for these annual losses. It's as if they have evolved to accomodate the losses from a natural predator. Many of the birds that collide with McCormick Place and other downtown buildings are young, and thus will never breed. You can tell what is migrating through the area at any given time during the season by just from what is brought into the museum by the Chicago Collision Monitors morning collecting rounds. One week I'll come in and there will be an overwhelming number of Fox Sparrows, the next week there will only be a couple of Fox sparrows and a predominance of hermit thrushes, yet another week will yield high numbers of woodcocks, and so on.
Over the summer, I had number of these that had been set aside to be made into skin specimens. Of course I would much, much rather see the bird alive then have it end up in my work area, but I relished the opportunity to study the male's vibrant blue plumage up close. Passerina cyanea are small, sparrow-sized birds. I've seen them in the Spring when hiking. A flash of deep blue will streak across a preserve path. The females are a pale, warm brown. Buntings, along with tanagers, cardinals, and grosbeaks, are lobbed into the family Cardinalidae. They share the thick, conical beak that is distinctive of cardinals and grosbeaks.
Of Birds and Rock
October 13, 2007
A small part of the impulse for this blog, is to purge myself of bird imagery. I can indulge myself here, so that avian images don't get overused in my other illustration work. There's nothing wrong with using bird imagery, but I try to be selective, as it is easy to overuse such instantly (easy) poetic forms, resulting in cliche work. About a third of the illustration work I do is for screenprinted rock posters. I won't (tryyyy not to!) use birds unless there is a specific reference made by the band. Here in these examples, the Califone poster was for a show they played after the release of their latest album "Heron King Blues", and sooooo...I couldn't resist. The other example is a poster for a Modest Mouse show in Vancouver. Modest Mouse has long been one of my favorite bands and I was asked to make a poster based on a favorite lyric. I chose the line "Inland from Vancouver's shores the ravens and the seagulls push eachother inward and outward." from the song "Heart Cooks Brain".
As I have mentioned before, I have become mostly independent in my specimen preparation. There is one area, however, that remains a mystery of mysteries: determining the gender. Many species of birds are not sexually dimorphic in their plumage or size, and so gender must be determined by the gonads. Even if the sex of the bird can be determined beyond a shadow of a doubt from the plumage, the size of the testes or ovary must be obtained and recorded. I am being slowly trained in the ways of determining bird gender. I say slowly because it is very easy for the inexperienced (me), in their efforts to locate the gonads, to end up removing them entirely, or scrambling things to the point beyond recognition (and fyi - an efficient way to irritate an experienced biologist). Unlike mammals and some reptiles, birds do not have external genitalia. They are located deep within the body cavity, near the liver. It is easier to train someone with birds obtained during the breeding season, as reproductive organs can increase dramatically in size during that time, thus making them easier to locate. Most females have one ovary, with some of the more common exceptions being raptors and kiwis. Dave Willard (who has 30 years experience behind him) has been training me, which means he'll locate the gonads first, determine the sex and then hand it over to me to see if I can figure it out. This has resulted, in more times than I care to admit, with me staring blankly through the magnifying visor and then pointing with the forceps at a lung, liver, or part of an intestine and saying "Eeeerm...female?!? Er...no I meant male?" After which, I am given a verbal pat on the hand, and I return to my seat and to the world I understand. Years ago someone sent me this *video. It's been playing in my head all week. Sigh. Gonads and strife, indeed. * Warning: I am not responsible if you are offended by gonads, dancing/singing squirrels, Ron Jeremy, or bad flash animation.
Red-breasted Nuthatches and Busy Summers
October 12, 2007
Well, although I didn't really intend it, I took a summer hiatus from Tiny Aviary. It was a very busy summer between some big illustration jobs and helping my husband move his screenprinting shop into a new space. It was eerily quiet at the museum. Many of the scientists that haunt my particular corner of zoology were off on various field excursions to Africa. Dr. Willard had set a number of birds aside in one of the freezers for me to pull from when I was able to make it in. For the most part, I have become competent enough that he no longer needs to hover over my work. I've become quicker, and this past Wednesday I prepared a record 6 skins. It's a record for me, but a number at which any seasoned field biologist would probably snicker. Dr. Willard spent the majority of the summer in Malawi, but along with some other department members, has returned, and the bird division has settled back into a more gregarious atmosphere. This past Wednesday I was able to meet some of the dedicated individuals that volunteer as Chicago Collision Moniters (check out link to right). They sat in a small group around a table and prepared an astonishing amount of birds collected that morning from McCormick Place and other loop buildings to be made into skeletons. This involved removing the feathers, after which, Dr. Willard would determine the sex of the bird and then they were placed in tanks full of dermestid beetles. The dermestids are voracious flesh eaters and within hours or days, depending on the size of the carcass, will have the bones picked clean. The idea of a room full of carrion eating beetles is surely off putting to some people, but I have become rather fascinated by the industrious colonies of dermestids. The economy and detail of their work is difficult to deny.
I hope to be posting again on a regular basis, or at least not having two months in between posts. So I'll start this up again with one of my favorite birds, Sitta canadensis or commonly known as the Red-breasted Nuthatch. The genus Sitta includes White-breasted Nuthatches, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and the Pygmy Nuthatch. Nuthatches are distinctive for their tree climbing acrobatics. They have the ability, and flaunt it often, to climb upside down and sideways along tree trunks and branches as they forage. We are in the midst of fall migration and many, many birds are coming through the Chicago area. Red-breasted are making their way down from the conifer forests of the North.