Crow Roost

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February 29, 2008


Have I mentioned that I like corvids? Maybe once or twice? This winter I have been seeing a lot of crows around where I live. This was not the case several years ago when the West Nile virus arrived in the Chicago area. The neighborhood where I lived at the time was one of the first hit hard. I would walk the dog and I would see dazed crows, teetering on low branches, or stumbling over the ground. They were literally falling out of the trees. Even if you dislike crows, you would have agreed that it was a sad sight. For a couple of years, the skies were notedly quiet. They have bounced back a bit, as evidenced by the cackling surrounding my house, and by the feathery, black silhouettes in the naked, wintery trees.

American Crows, Corvus brachyrhynchos, are familiar sights in many urban areas. In fact, they are more common now than when the first European settlers arrived, due to habitat changes. They tend to roost communally, and sometimes in the same roost year after year. They tend to be less social in the breeding season. Some populations of crows will breed cooperatively, with the parents often being assisted by an auxiliary (main offspring from the previous season). The current issue of National Geographic has a article on animal intelligence. One of the animals showcased is a very smart New Caledonian crow, Uek, that has exhibited problem solving, and tool making/using behavior. So now that is no longer the exclusive domain of mammals, we're just lucky they don't evolve opposable thumbs.

New Cedar Waxwing Giclee Print

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February 25, 2008


Hello! I hope everybody is staying warm. I finally received my new edition of archival inkjet prints of the watercolor I did awhile back: Cedar Waxwings. I just posted it in my Etsy shop. I'll be back a little bit later in the week with some new paintings.

New Items Posted to Etsy Shop

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February 19, 2008


Hi there! I just posted a painting of a Long-eared Owl to my Etsy shop, as well as a new, 2 color etching of a Dodo. Both were earlier posts. Also, I have been compiling a Tiny Aviary mailing list for those that wish to be notified when I have new work available. If you wish to be on this list, just drop me an email. Thanks!

Tundra Swan - Cygnus columbianus

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February 15, 2008


Every once in awhile I will arrive at the Bird Division prep lab to find a large Tundra swan waiting to be prepared on one of the larger tables. I haven't prepared one as a study skin yet. The two that I have seen were being preserved for their skeletons. I know the birds are going to be preserved carefully, and put to good use in the museum collections, but I have to say that a dead swan is a sad sight. Their large, snowy white bodies, and gracefully snaking necks are beautiful even in the the stillness of death. One of the two was a juvenile, and appeared to have died by getting some sort of blockage in its esophagus.

Tundra swans were formerly known as Whistling swans, and they can be easily mistaken for another North American species: the Trumpeter swan. Trumpeter swans have a couple of subtle characteristics that distinguish it from the Tundra. Trumpeters lack the yellow spot on the bill that adult Tundras possess, and in general their bill shape is more wedge shaped. The Tundra is the more numerous of the two, and breeds in arctic wetlands. I have seen a species of swan up at the Chicago Botanic gardens during migration seasons, but I am not sure which of the two. I only know for sure that it was not the feral Mute swan. Mute swans are an aggressive species introduced from Europe, and are quite common. They are larger in overall size than the Tundra and Trumpeter, and adults have bright orange bills. This is a larger painting than I typically do, and so it did not fit on my wee scanner bed.

Dodo Etching

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February 14, 2008


I spent the last three days at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Jay Ryan, Mat Daly, and I were invited by Heather White (a grad student in the printmaking program) to make prints using their facilities with the students. Jay and Mat made screenprints. I wiggled my way out of that and into the etching lab. Since I don't have my own intaglio press, I rarely get the chance to make an etching. When the opportunity arises, I jump on it. I have an Masters of Fine Art in printmaking, specifically in intaglio, and worked for almost five years as a printer for a Chicago artist.

This is a new 2 color copper plate etching. Up in the corner is a domestic pigeon that has been selectively bred to have exaggerated amounts of feathers covering its feet: a hungarian house pigeon. I was thinking about the history we create with certain groups of animals. The Dodo is in the family columbidae, as are all other pigeons and doves. The Dodo was perhaps one of the first species in which their demise was recorded as being directly attributable to humans. Sailors coming to Mauritius found them tragically easy prey. Rock doves, on the other hand, are a species that is remarkably ubiquitous and has thrived in our man made habitats. It is also a species that has been manipulated and selectively bred to create myriad, domestic breeds: fantails, pouters, frillbacks, etc. Charles Darwin dabbled in pigeon breeding, and it is still very popular today.

Long-eared Owl - Asio otus

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February 08, 2008


This winter some local birders got to see quite a sight. Long-eared owls will often group up in the non-breeding season, and create sort of winter safety pods. Normally very wary of human activity, a group ranging from 3 to sometimes 13 roosted in a very conspicuous pine tree in an urban area here for several weeks. It was a once in a lifetime chance for many to see this species up close. Asio otus is a master of camouflage, and when disturbed will elongate itself to blend in with tree trunks, or simply fly away. This particular group of owls sat like a bunch of fat cats, sleeping, yawning, preening, in a tree very near a busy sidewalk. Every once in a while one would slowly creak open an eye to take a peek at the nutty bunch of hominids gawking away, of which I was one. I worked on an asio (not one from the local group!) last week and prepared a study skin of it, and it was incredibly beautiful. Their furry talons and thick plumage, make them seem more mammal than avian to me sometimes.

Common Nighthawk - Chordelles minor

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February 07, 2008


Recently I prepared a couple of study skins of the Common Nighthawk, a bird I like very much. Along with the arrival of Chimney Swifts, they are my summer signifiers. They have very delicate skin, and so the first specimen I did wasn't so great. The second one, which I did last week went much better. In the Chicago area on a warm summer night, you will hear its raspy "peeeent!" call as it forages for insects high above. It looks like a swallow or Chimney Swift on steroids, more than a hawk. In fact it is not related to hawks at all, but belongs to the nightjar family which includes whippoorwills. Their vocalizations are pretty conspicuous, along with the strong white bars on the ends of their wings. They favor flat surfaces for nesting, such as fields, rocky outcrops, or gravel rooftops. They don't make a next and lay directly onto the surface of their chosen area. You will only see them here in the summer months, after which they migrate far south to east of the Andes.

Snowy Egret - Egretta thula

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February 05, 2008


We have been getting a lot of snow here in Chicago. I am loving it. Don't hate me because I like winter. I ordered some beautiful handmade Twinrocker watercolor paper recently, and bought a couple of sheets of what they call "Turner Blue". I am so smitten with the robin's egg blue, and so this is my second painting working with it. It's not a bird I worked on at the museum, but I've always wanted to do a painting of one. This one is going up on my Etsy site, and I am hoping to do another larger painting of a Tundra swan on the same paper. I like the way the blue of the paper contrasts with the white ink.

Snowy egrets are known, amongst other things, for their beautiful plumes used to spectacular effect in mating displays. They were one of many species of birds to suffer due to the women's hat industry in the 1880s, as their feathers were highly sought after. Although the snowy made a strong comeback in the mid-twentieth century,after the cessation of feather trade, numbers are again declining due to a very modern threat: loss of wetland habitat.

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