Cedar Waxwing - Bombycilla cedrorum

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December 28, 2007


Cedar Waxwings belong to the family Bombyicillidae, of which there are only three different species. Waxwings have secondary flight-feathers that are tipped in a red waxy substance. For the most part they eat small fruit, and occasionally supplement their diet with insects. I saw some this summer moving along a row of fruiting trees in the arboretum that lines the North Shore Channel in Evanston, IL. I think the one that I prepared as a study skin had been at a wildlife rehabilitation center. Anytime I see a photo of a waxwing, I marvel at the almost airbrushed quality of the subtle color transitions within their plumage. It was good to be able to see that up close. I just finished this painting today, and hope that within the next week or so I may be able to offer it as limited edition print in my Etsy shop.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Nicobar Island Pigeon Study

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December 21, 2007


I can't believe that 2007 is almost over, and I can't believe it has taken me this long to finish this study painting. Several weeks ago I went in to the Field and pulled a Nicobar Island Pigeon, from the collections. I went back in today to finish it. The specimen that I used was from 1966 and was labeled being obtained from Busch Gardens. Whoever prepared it as a study skin back in '66 did a very nice job, as it was in excellent shape.

The family of Columbidae (pigeons, doves) consist of many different species spread throughout the world. When you say pigeon to most people, they will immediately conjure up the image of mobs of our feral, feathered friends in urban areas, otherwise known as rock doves. In reality, Columbids are some of the most colorful, beautiful birds in the world, and many are endangered. This organization, Columbidae Conservation, was recently brought to my attention.

Ovenbird-Seiurus auracapilla

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This large warbler's common name is derived from its habit of building a domed, oven-like nest of leaves and grass on the ground. It's a drab olive with some dark streaking, especially along the crown. Although it is not always easily visible, it has an orange/gold wisp of feathers lining its head. I think part of its scientific name "auracapilla" points to this characteristic. In addition to nesting on the ground it is also primarily a ground feeder. Its numbers are in decline, most likely due to the continuing fragmentation of North American forests. As with so many other species of birds, it requires large tracts of forest for successful breeding.

Pine Warbler - Dendroica pinus

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December 20, 2007


This Wednesday, after being in the prep lab for about five minutes, tiny hell broke loose because of a surprise visit by some mite researchers. They were coming in to the museum to try and extract a type of nasal mite that is found in the nasal passages of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. The mite is a possible relative of the common dust mite. In any regard, Dr. Willard was having to drag out many frozen sapsuckers in preparation for their research, as it seemed only one in five of the birds actually had the mite.

I've been working on so many warblers with "Dendroica" as part of their scientific name, I've begun to think it'd be a good name for a first born. The Pine Warbler is a denizen of the pine forests of the eastern US, with higher population densities in the southeastern portions. It is one of the few wood warblers (family: Parulidae) that regularly consumes seeds. Despite it being somewhat widespread, there is little information regarding its breeding and nesting habits. This may be due to it nesting in high pine trees, making it difficult for observation.

Last night I was stressed out and so popped in an episode of David Attenborough's "Life of Birds". Nothing like a clipped English accent of a great, curious mind, to put one at ease. I respect what Attenborough has done to bring the wonders of the natural world to so many. I love his dignified, congenial manner, even when standing smack in the middle of huge colony of sooty terns. One of my favorite scenes is of him in his khakis and windbreaker jacket crouched over on a dark, wet New Zealand beach speaking in excited, hushed tones about the amazing thing we are about to witness. Slowly from the brush emerges a fat, little Kiwi clucking along and digging here and there with the tip of its bill into the sand. It never once takes notice of the naturalist crawling around along side it. The kiwi's alien like looks, and focused digging, up against Attenborough's schoolboy awe is priceless.

Eastern Towhee - Piplio erythrophthalmus

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Whew! The Chicago winter has indeed arrived. We put in a wood burning stove last year, and between having that going and multiple pots of jasmine tea, I'm surviving quite well. My husband, Jay, got me a new thistle feeder, so we put that up along with a suet cake and another feeder a couple of days ago. The birds have found it all and the yard seems alive again.

Well the holiday season, and several illustration jobs make for a busy time of year, but I have a few things for the Aviary that I'll be posting this week and next. I went into the museum yesterday. Several birds had been set aside for me to make into study skins, and this was one of them. Piplio erythrophthalmus is a mouthful of latin, and in looking at the female I was handed I initially thought it was a female junco on steroids. Towhees are part of the family Emberizidae. In North America, this family mainly consists of birds known as sparrows and juncos (so maybe I wasn't soooo far off with my junco on steroids hypothesis!). Their thick bills are perfectly adapted to seed eating. Like many birds in this family, Towhees spend a good deal of time on the ground scratching up their food. They'll kick up leaf litter to dislodge tiny arthropods. The male Eastern Towhee is a very striking bird with its dark upper plumage and splashes of burnt sienna on the sides. The females have similar patterning with the exception of being more of an umber brown on top. There was an interesting fact on the Birds of North America site, stating that the first time this species of towhee was recorded by a European was by John White on a visit to the aborted settlement on Roanoke Island in 1585.

Back from the U.K. and Birds of Peru

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December 05, 2007

I just returned home yesterday afternoon after spending 5 days in Manchester for an art show that I have at the The Richard Goodall Gallery. with my fellow artist and husband, Jay Ryan. The bulk of the work was Jay's as this is his third show there, and most of what was being shown is rock poster art. It was really good to see all of my poster work framed proper and all up on a nice clean wall. All in all it was a great weekend. The show was well received and we had a good turnout of supporters. Thanks to the Goodall family and everyone that made it out to the opening! No thank you to dark, rain pissing Manchester weather!

Tonight, if I don't succumb to jet lag, I will be attending an event for the publication for a new guide on the birds of Peru at the Field Museum. I plan on shuffling off later this morning for my normal volunteer shift of specimen prep., but we'll see how awake I am at 3PM today. I don't think even a double espresso can help me. Besides, I do have a lot of illustration work to catch up on. The book is authored by Tom Schulenberg and John O'Neill, and is supposedly extraordinarily beautiful. I will try to provide more specifics on it later.

A quick note: I was recently made aware of this excellent explanation of the process of one way that a bird makes it into a collection such as the one at the Field Museum. Check it out here. Thank you fiske!

I'll be back with more paintings soon.

Ravens

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November 25, 2007


This is a new ink and watercolor that will be going into the show I am involved in at the Richard Goodall Gallery in Manchester, England. I love drawing ravens. Ravens are part of the family corvidae that includes crows and jays. All birds in this group, especially ravens, are very intelligent, social birds. Ravens in particular also figure into the mythology of many different cultures. In some Native American cultures, the ravens are seen as tricksters, and in others they are seen as being responsible for the placement of the sun, moon, and stars. A friend recently gifted a black onyx Zuni fetish of two joined ravens. It sits, along with another Zuni raven figurine overlooking my desk.

Darwin's Finches

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November 22, 2007


Years ago, I read "The Beak of the Finch", a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Jonathan Weiner about the research of Peter and Rosemary Grant on the island of Daphne Major in the Galapagos. They have spent over twenty years studying the various species of finches that inhabit the island. Their research of the finches has shown that natural selection is working faster than Darwin ever conceived it could when he developed his theory of evolution, and so fast that it can be witnessed in process. It was my first true introduction to Darwin's theories, and it has led to a real love of biology and respect for the natural world.

The 13 species of finches are all fairly drab in color but their beak size and shape varies from species to species and is directly linked to their food sources. The finches are one of the many things Darwin observed on his voyage to the Galapagos on the HMS Beagle, and would later influence his development of a basic theory of evolution, as he had reasoned that all of the 13 must have descended from a common ancestor. Currently there is a really great exhibit at the Chicago Field Museum on Darwin. It's one of the better exhibits that they have had in awhile. There are plenty of misconceptions about Darwin and his theories, and so it is important that there is an opportunity for people to be introduced to the very human individual behind it all, as well as evolution.

Also check out the blog for The Beagle Project.This is an ongoing project with the ultimate goal of building a replica of the HMS Beagle and sailing the world in 2009 in the tracks of Darwin and Captain Fitzroy's infamous 1831 journey, marking the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday.

This is a watercolor on illustration board that will be going into a show at the Richard Goodall Gallery in Manchester, UK next weekend.

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Show in Manchester, UK

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November 20, 2007

I'm getting ready for an exhibition of my work along with my husband, Jay Ryan, in Manchester. The show is at the Richard Goodall Gallery and opens December 1st. We'll be flying over for it and be in the there for a few days. I hope to be posting again here soon after I have all of the work shipped off. If you're in northern England stop by and check out the show!

Robin Nest

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November 14, 2007


I love the aesthetic beauty and ingenuity of nests. Here's a watercolor I did of a robin's nest. I am hoping to do a few more paintings of different types. This painting went up on my etsy.com shop. I won't be going into the museum this week. Dr. Willard is not in, and I'm very busy getting ready for a art exhibit with my husband that will be happening in Manchester the first weekend of December.

Giant Sable Antelope - Hippotragus niger variani

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November 11, 2007


After working up in the bird division on a painting of a Nicobar Island Pigeon, I went back downstairs into the collections to do a painting of some sort of ungulate. I chose the Giant Sable Antelope. These are massive forest dwelling antelopes of Angola, and a rare subspecies of the more common Sable Antelope. It was thought that they were extinct, and a casualty of the decades long Angolan civil war, until a herd was discovered in 2002. The Angolan people revere Giant Sables as mystical and powerful creatures, and their image graces Angola's airline, and stamps as a national symbol. I hope to have the time to do a painting of the entire animal. It's too big to fit in my sketchbook.

Nicobar Island Pigeon

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I went into the museum last Friday just to draw. I had a little extra time this week to indulge. When I arrived it was swarming with school groups. Initially I had wanted to just spend the day doing quick studies of various ungulates, but it was too crowded and so I headed up to zoology to pull something from the bird collections from which to work. I chose a Nicobar Island Pigeon. I wasn't familiar with them until doing a bit of reading up on Dodos. While they are not flightless like the Dodo, they are supposedly very distantly related to Dodos. They inhabit the Nicorbar Islands and other Indonesian Islands. They're rather large and have beautiful mantles of long, thin, blue-green, and rust colored feathers. As you can see I did not complete the watercolor and hope to do so this week. The specimen I was working from was from the 1960s.

Eastern Phoebe - Sayornis phoebe

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November 06, 2007


Eastern phoebes are one of our most common Tyrant flycatchers. While they will still build nests in natural rock cliffs and outcrops, they have adapted to nest near humans by nesting in the eaves of buildings and under bridges. This adaptation has allowed it to deal with changes we have made to the natural landscape and in some cases even expand its range. They are also distinguished by their constant tail wagging. Sayornis will often return to the same nest site up to several years in a row. This behavior was supposedly first documented by Audubon in 1804, and thus they became the first banded bird in North America. He did so by attaching a silver thread to the legs of nestlings and then observing their nesting habits in subsequent years; after which he then promptly ate the them. Just kidding...well sort of. I think the man ate everything he observed.

Golden-winged Warbler - Vermivora chrysoptera

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This little bird is stunningly beautiful. I love the sharp contrast between the its dark mask and chin patch, and its white breast. The females are similar in color to the males but have paler masks and throats. They are not very common, and their numbers are declining. Chrysoptera will interbreed with Blue-winged Warblers and this has resulted in hybrids known as "Lawrence's" and "Brewster's" warblers. Along with this, nest parasitism by cowbirds, and loss of suitable habitat has also contributed to the swift decline in numbers. It does not nest in the Chicago area, as it is only a migrant in these parts.

Specimen Preparation

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November 05, 2007


I have been volunteering at the Field Museum of Natural History for about a year now. As I have gotten several questions regarding what speciman preparation is, I should clarify that here:

Basically, the work that I am involved in is a simplified version of taxidermy. I don't think there is a whole lot of difference between how I, or other volunteers and scientists, prepare a specimen now, and how someone on Darwin's HMS Beagle would have prepared a finch from the Galapagos in 1831. Everything except the skull, wing and leg bones are removed from the body, a tissue sample is take and bird is stuffed with cotton and sewn back up. The bird skins are then mounted on styrofoam to dry for a couple of weeks, afterwhich they are labeled with all relevant information and put into the collection. The museum is full of flat file drawers that have specimens of every conceivable species. The specimens are used by scientists, researchers, artists, journalists for myriad reasons (i.e. size variation of bills within a specific species, plumage variation, geographic differences, and so on). Above is a photo of what one of these drawers looks like containing the specimens. The photo is by Jason Creps. Check out more of his beautiful photos here.

The birds that I work on have, for the most part, died by colliding with downtown buidlings. These birds are collected everyday by a fine group of volunteers: The Chicago Bird Collision Monitors. They bring what they find into the museum. If they find anything that is stunned or injured, it is brought to an area wildlife rehabilitation center. You have to have a permit to collect a dead migratory species of bird. Oddly, you do not have to have a permit to pick up a stunned or injured bird. I say oddly because if you don't know how to handle a bird properly, or any wild animal for that matter, you can cause a lot of trauma and stress, and even put yourself at risk for injury. I gather there are some strong opinions and debate on the matter as to what the proper thing to do is when one comes across a stunned or injured bird. I don't have a lot of direct experience with this, but I am of the mind that if I see a stunned bird the best thing for me to do is to shuffle it out of harms way and not pick it up. Often times it is just stunned and needs a bit of time to recover in a sheltered spot. If you see a stunned bird sitting in the middle of a sidewalk, find a way to place it out of harms way. Many stunned songbirds can be trampled on by unwitting people, or get nabbed up by greedy seagulls and crows. If there is anyone reading this that has done bird banding or collision work, feel free to comment and add your well informed opinions.

Fairy Wren Tattoo

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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

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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.

Marsh Wren - Cistothorus palustris

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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.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Coccyzus americanus

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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

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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.

Passenger Pigeon - Ectopistes Migratorius

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New Paintings for Etsy Shop: Great Auk, Dodo, and Tui

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October 22, 2007



Going, Going, Gone.

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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.

Orange-Crowned Warbler

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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.

Northern Parula

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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.

New Paints

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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

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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.

Kakapo

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October 14, 2007


This is just a little painting I did of one of my favorite birds over the summer: New Zealand's flightless parrot.

Indigo Bunting

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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

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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".

Gonads and Strife

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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

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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.

Tiny Aviary Shop

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August 12, 2007

As many have asked me if the paintings here on Tiny Aviary are for sale, I decided to open a wee internet shop that will feature some of the paintings that will be for sale, along with my other poster and illustration work. In general, 90 percent of the paintings on this site serve to document my experience at the Chicago Field Museum, but I will now and then create paintings that will be posted to the shop. Currently, I plan on doing a small series of birds of paradise that will be available.
You may view my shop at http://dsudyka.etsy.com

Lesser Bird of Paradise

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August 09, 2007


It's tough finding a lady friend on New Guinea if you're a Bird of Paradise. You have to really put yourself out there. It is thought that Birds of Paradise evolved from a common crow like ancestor many, many years ago and branched off in to the diva-esque flamboyance for which the species has become famous. I believe there are roughly 40-ish different species of Bird of Paradise, of which Paradisea minor is one. Each species has it's own elaborate courtship ritual. Anyone familiar with the excellent BBC "Planet Earth" series, is no stranger to some of their more extraordinary performances. Nope, you won't find these flying through Chicago! When I was little and rendered some of my first bird "books" (using that very loosely!), I couldn't help but be astounded by excessive beauty of b.o.ps. They were better than unicorns to my eight year old mind!

Superb Fairy Wren

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August 08, 2007


Hi there - again, not a bird that I prepared at the Field. Fairy wrens are native to Australia. This is another drawing for a tattoo (different person than the one that is getting the scissor-tailed flycatcher.) for someone that wanted a wren. Initially I was going to go with a house wren or some other North American wren, but in the end we opted for something a little, um, flashier.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

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July 17, 2007


This is not a bird I worked on at the Field Museum but an illustration I created to be used as a possible tattoo for a friend. She lives in Kentucky, and I just realized that is not part of their range, although you will find them south in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. I saw one for the first time on a road trip to Austin, TX, and then again in Lawrence, KS. With their dramatic tails, they seem like something that you would be more likely to see in New Guinea with Birds of Paradise, than in the southern US. Tyrant Flycatchers (family Tyrannidae) get their name from their distinctive foraging behavior. They usually fly out from a perch and catch insects midair, and then quickly loop back to the same perch or a different one near by. It's been so busy, so I'm sorry I haven't been updating, but I have a big list for when the schedule clears a bit.

Charley Harper

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June 12, 2007




No... these aren't mine; I wish. I just got the sad news that one of my favorite illustrators, Charley Harper, passed away today at age 84. Harper's subjects were always from nature. Not only was he a great artist, but he seemed to have a clear, straightforward appreciation and understanding of the natural world. If Aldo Leopold would have been a visual artist, I think Harper could have come close to that incarnation. His work is full of clever visual puns that play upon whatever specific subject he was depicting. Aesthetically, his images were very modern. He created by using clean lines, and simple, flat shapes of color. His work was by no means flat or sterile, but full of life, movement, and wit. Towards the end of his life, he seemed to be enjoying a renaissance in design world stardom. I *discovered* him by stumbling upon a series of skateboard decks he designed a couple of years ago. How cool is that: designing decks in your 80s? Anyway, do yourself a favor and seek out his work. There is one book that is currently available "Beguiled by the Wild", and another "Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life" that will be available within the coming year. RIP Charley.

Magnolia Warbler

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June 08, 2007


One of our most common warblers in the Northeast, lovely Dendroica magnolia was named by ornithologist Alexander Wilson after collecting a speicmen out of a magnolia tree along the Mississippi in 1810. He initially used "Magnolia" for the latin name, and "Black and Yellow" warbler for the English, so obviously this got changed at some point. They are fairly conspicuous as they forage near the ground. Males have black and yellow patterning on the face, whereas the females lack some of that bold patterning. Unfortunately, it seems as though I have seen many come through the lab at the museum. I have seen Dr. Willard preparing them, and even someone of his experience still seems stunned by their beauty everytime.

Nashville Warbler

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June 06, 2007


Okay, sorry for the kitsch, but I couldn't resist. And did this blog really need another painting of a bird on/in a tree? Don't answer that. So yes, here it is, the next warbler in my long march of warblers: the Nashville warbler. You may think that with a name like that it's song has a nice little twang, and it nests in the Grand Ol'Opry; not quite. In 1811, ornithologist Alexander Wilson spotted it in the vicinity of Nashville, hence the name, but it does not regularly breed in that area. There are two distinctive breeding populations: one that mainly inhabits an eastern North American range, and the other a western range. For many years due to slight variation in plummage, it was thought that the western range was inhabited by a seperate species named Calaveras Warbler.

Blackburnian Warbler

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June 05, 2007


Dr. Willard leaves for a field expedition to Malawi this week, so it looks as though I'm on my own for a couple of months. I don't know what will be set aside for me to work on in his absence, but I have a feeling that it will be more smaller species. The largest bird I've prepared in the past couple of months was a Belted kingfisher, but aside from that it's mostly been warblers. Working on preparing a smaller skin is, for the most part, a smaller time investment than working on something like a hawk or Great-horned Owl, but there is less forgivness in terms of covering your tracks if you make a mistake. The Blackburnian was one of the more striking warblers I prepared recently. The males have bright orange throats in contrast to the black streaking in their plumage. Dendroica fusca is most at home in northeastern coniferous forests. A loner bird when nesting and in winter, it will join foraging flocks of other small birds such as nuthatches, kinglets, and chickadees after their young have fledged.

Common Yellowthroat

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June 04, 2007


Well helllooooo fellow bird nirds! It's a been a while since I've posted. My *day job* illustration work has been keeping me at bay, but I'm back and still up to my neck in warblers. Are Common Yellowthroats really that common? Does having a name with "common" in it render you immune from extinction? Perhaps if New Zealand's Moa had been named the Common Moa, they'd still be lumbering the forests of that part of the world. Why "common" ? If I were a yellowthroat I'd be a little dismayed by that title. They're quite striking little birds, especially the males with their black bandito masks. I saw my first yellowthroat flitting about in a leatherleaf bog in the wilds of northern Illinois. I saw my second in my backyard this year. Happiness.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

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April 29, 2007


Male Black-throated Blue Warblers are one of the more conspicusous wood warblers due to their striking plummage. Female exhibit some sexual dimorphism as they are a drab olive with lighter underparts. They prefer dense forests of deciduous trees as they forage for insects, gleaning from them from the undersides of leaves. I was lucky enough to see a male(aside from the male that I prepared as a specimen) come through my tiny Chicago back yard one spring. Now that I have a greater idea of the risks an urban area poses for migrating birds, I think back on that little guy and hope that he was able to make it north okay to breed.

Black and White Warbler

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April 27, 2007


Yet another tiny participant in the almost endless parade of warblers. Mniotilta varia is a feisty warbler that is easily spotted due to its striking black and white plumage (both male and female), and its tree creeping behaviors. Similar to nuthatches and brown creepers, they can be seen scaling and creeping along tree trunks and branches collecting insects from bark and leaves. They're fairly common in summer throughout the eastern US, and their winter range reaches into northern South America. When I was little my cat taught me a tough lesson with this bird. The only time I have seen one of these was in the mouth of my tabby. Growing up, we lived in a fairly rural area and let our cat roam free. This was before we had a clear understanding of the devasting impact roaming pet cats and feral populations have on wild bird populations. These days I live in a much more urban area, but the cats stay inside unless joined by my company in the back yard.

Eastern Bluebird

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April 25, 2007


For many years poplulations of this bird were declining. In recent years, however, it has been experiencing a resurgence. This is due in no small part to agressive conservation programs that have placed bluebird nesting boxes in proper habitat. I saw my first Eastern Bluebird in Glacial Park just outside of Ringwood, IL, and now see them quite often when I venture out of the city. Bluebirds are considered thrushes along with robins, the spotted thrushes(Hermit Thrush, Wood Thrush, and Townshend's Solitaire amongst other species.

Brown-headed Cowbird

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April 24, 2007


It's true: it's not the most glorious of names. Cowbirds along with blackbirds, meadowlarks, and orioles, are in the family Icteridae. They are known as brood parasites: meaning they do not construct their own nests and raise their young, but leave that up to the host species and nest of which they have sneakishly layed their egg. The host species is oftentimes a smaller bird, such as a warbler. If cowbirds were human, they would definitely go the nanny route. Despite its parasitic ways, the cowbird has a beautiful irridescent sheen to it's "black" plummage.

Bay-Breasted Warbler

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The Bay-Breasted Warbler that I prepared did not have the bold coloring of the one depicted here. It was much more pale by comparison. It was either a breeding female, or a non-breeding male, but I don't remember what was eventually ascertained regardings its gender. Bay-Breasted Warblers are in the genus Dendroica and in the family Parulidae with most other wood warblers. Many warblers are coming through the Chicago area right now. Unfortunately, I only see the ones that won't be making it through, but I'm still astounded by the variety of these little insectivores.

Connecticut Warbler

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April 04, 2007


When I think of all the warblers there are, my head begins to spin. There are Old World Warblers (families Sylviidae and Cisticolidae), Wood Warblers or New World Warblers (family Parulidae), and Australian Warblers (family Acanthizidae). Our little friend here, being that he is found on our continent would fall into the family of New World warblers. Judging by the name, you would think this is a resident of its namesake. Well you're wrong! They don't actually breed in that state; just passing through, thank you very much. They were first "discovered" in Connecticut. I prepared a little male. Males have a fairly well pronounced grey hood.

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