Feet and Beaks

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The best thing a person can do with dreams is realize them. For years, I have wanted to spend time with the Central Washington University bird collection and today I realized the dream. I visited the biology department, and was allowed to choose some study skins. Then I was led to an empty lab room, outfitted with lights, and left on my own.

I chose a raven, a saw-whet owl, varied thrush, hermit thrush, ruby-crowned kinglet, and winter wren. These are all familiar birds from summers in the woods, from the large to the tiny. Study skins are not taxidermy. They are prepared from dead birds (road kill, caught in mousetraps, flown into windows) by skinning and stuffing with cotton. Kept in large metal drawers in cabinets, study skins reek of mothballs to keep them from being devoured by invertebrates who normally dispose of dead things. They are not lifelike, but provide opportunity to really examine the details of feet, beaks, feathers, color and morphology. Which is exactly what I wanted to do.

The raven was first, a bird that holds great fascination for me. The specimen was at least 20 inches long from head to tail, with glossy black feathers. It had been collected from near the Columbia River near Beverly–a bird of basalt columns and sagebrush. I went straight for the feet, thin leather stretched over tendon and bone. I did not know that many birds have pads on the bottoms of their toes, similar to dogs or cats, but shaped to the bird foot. I did not know that the bristles that cover the nares (nostrils) are stiffer than horsehair, and I have never gotten a close look at the ruff of long narrow feathers around the neck.

The more you draw, the more you see. I’ve known this for years, but it still leaves me speechless, awed, delighted. I drew and erased, drew and erased, searching for the line that described the curve of claw, the length of toe sections, the relationship between this piece and that. The more I drew, the more I saw. And I only drew one foot, leaving the rest of the bird for another time. Next I picked up the varied thrush and saw the same pads, only much finer. I imagined how thrush feet perch on branches. Such delicate feet would wrap themselves around a twig, or stand on conifer boughs before wings opened and feet lifted off.

After lunch I examined the thrush’s head. There is such variety in beaks, depending on what they’re used for. I compared the wren and kinglet beaks–I will have to take a magnifying glass to draw them. The curve of the thrush beak confounded me until I got close enough. I didn’t know the lower mandible is much like ours, with a soft area from the chin to the throat. The thrush has fine little whiskers growing here, and I wonder what the purpose is. The texture of the feathers drew me in, and I spent a long time just looking. My fingers feel too clumsy to express the fine perfection of them. My pencils are not sharp enough. I am out of the drawing habit, but satisfied to remember it today.

The birds were returned to their smelly drawers. I looked in other drawers, curious about the Clark’s nutcrackers and magpies. I will have to go back–there are warblers and sparrows and other forest birds to gaze upon. Before leaving the collection room, one more drawer was opened. Parrots–I was shown a specimen of the Carolina parakeet, the only parrot species known to have inhabited the United States. The last wild bird died in 1904, and the last captive parakeet succumbed in 1918. According to Wikipedia, 720 skins and 16 skeletons remain in museums around the world. Our bird was collected in 1913, a hundred years ago. I marveled at the brilliance of the green feathers–still, after all this time. Extinction is a complicated process. Habitat destruction, perception as a nuisance and pest, social nature and lack of fear, predation, competition, disease…combine in any proportions and you have the recipe for extirpation. That one stuffed parakeet in a drawer can signify the whole world in flames.

I don’t have much to show for hours of concentration. But I came, I saw, I drew. I learned. I am faintly redolent of mothballs, and I want to go back. There is so much I haven’t seen.

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2 thoughts on “Feet and Beaks

  1. I enjoyed this post a great deal, Deb… & thought hard of you awhile during last month when I read a novel entitled The Bird Artist, by Howard Norman. It’s not your type of reading, but I’ll mention this much about it: It’s a national book award winner, it’s setting is the late (I think I recall) 1800’s through early 1900’s coast of Newfoundland & it’s first paragraph goes like this (below), which is what prompted me to drop it into my library book bag… this (fictitious) man lived and breathed to become more skilled at bird art & there’s a lot about that.

    “My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself”.

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