Feet and Beaks


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.


Drawn from Memory

Confirming that it is possible to make it snow on Wednesday by planting peas on Tuesday. But on Thursday the sun comes out.

Took the binoculars out to spy on the top of the willow tree this morning. Thought I might catch that warbling creature whose song tickled my memory when I was planting peas. I listened to songs at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website, and the closest I came was Warbling Vireo. But what I saw flicking from twig to twig today was not plain and gray. I actually never saw a whole bird, only parts. There was a gray head, yellow flanks, a hint of red or russet on top of the head. Probably a Nashville Warbler. Possibly there was more than one bird. Possibly more than one species. It’s hard to tell when they are in constant motion, picking insects off the willow catkins, tweedling and trilling away. Birds being themselves are hard to draw from life. I completely understand why J.J. Audubon shot them in order to look at them. Only way to get them to hold still. The contemporary bird artist (most notably David Allen Sibley, whose field guide I use) has the advantage of fine spotting scopes and study skin collections in museums and universities. Also the patience of Job and apparently lots and lots of time.

I staunchly maintain that I am not a birder. I do not keep a life list, nor do I travel solely to observe birds. I shamelessly play favorites, preferring thrushes to ducks, corvids to gallinules. Birds are part of a larger world of life, and as an artist I am far more concerned with capturing their essence than their details. Nobody does detail better than Sibley. But I have an affinity for those Japanese and Chinese artists of the 19th century who caught specific birds with a stylized economy of brushstrokes. That’s why I let the morning’s bird viewing sit in my mind until this evening when the yellow and gray of the birds and blooming willow catkins had rested long enough.