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I still can’t get over fancy pigeons. Not because of what their outlandish appearance reveals about selective breeding or about pigeons, but because of what it reveals about us humans. People purposely select some pigeon feature and then spend decades (or whole human lifetimes) emphasizing it to the point of absurdity in generation after generation after generation of bird.

We have already looked at shortface pigeons and black Indian fantail pigeons, but I think today’s fancy pigeon might be even more remarkable. The Jacobin pigeon is an Indian breed of pigeon noted for huge feathery collars which nearly obscure the birds’ faces.

I initially thought that I was misspelling the name of these birds and they were “Jacobean” pigeons (like the huge stiff lacy collar which was in fashion in Jacobean England), but that is completely wrong. These are truly Jacobin pigeons–not because they want to tear down kingship and guillotine a bunch of feckless aristocrats, but instead because they are named after the Jacobin order of monks (which must have had very noteworthy collars and cowls).

Just look at the poor birds! They really look like haughy 5th avenue matrons!

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The arid scrubland of north and central Australia is an uncompromising environment of rocky hills, dry creekbeds, arid plateaus, desert mountains, scree, and a landscape which Australians call “gibber plains” (which, as far as I can tell, seems to be a desert of cobblestones or small sharp boulders).  Plants need to be tough to survive in this harsh country and the spinifex grasses fit the bill.  These course sharp grasses form stout tussocks which can survive with minimal water in a land where droughts can last for years.

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But this is not a post about desert grass or dry cobblestones; it is about an amazing bird which is capable of living a gregarious sedentary lifestyle in this vast dry landscape.  Spinifex pigeons (Geophaps plumifera) are a species of bronzewing pigeon which live in the baking grasslands of the island continent.  They are handsome and endearing pigeons with yellowish barred feathers, a white belly, and red cateye glasses.  Perhaps their most pronounced feature is a a magnificent elongated crest which looks not unlike the bleached khaki grasses which provide their home and sustenance.

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The spinifex pigeon lives throughout most of northern and central Australia where it survives by foraging for seeds of drought-resistant grasses and suchlike scrub and by eating any tiny invertebrates it is lucky enough to find.  The birds are social, and live in flocks from four to a couple of dozen (although much larger flocks have occasionally been spotted).

I don’t really have a lot of further information about the spinifex pigeon, but it is a worthwhile addition to my pigeon gallery, because of its handsome appearance, and because it is so thoroughly a resident of the scrubland.  Just comparing the spinifex pigeon with the Nicobar pigeon of tropical islands of the Andaman Sea, or the bleeding heart pigeon of the Philippine rainforest is to instantly see how climate and habitat sculpt creatures into appropriate shapes and colors.

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Today’s post about pigeons is a real eye popper! This is the Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon, a breed of fancy pigeon renowned for having huge bubble eyes. Just look at those colossal peepers! To quote the language of fancy pigeon-keeping, “…the beak, while being short and thick, is straight set.  The large eyes are pearl in color with thick almost frog-like ceres.”  That hardly seems to do justice to eyes which seem like they could belong to a peregrine falcon or a colossal squid!

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Darwin famously conceived part of his theory of evolution from observing the shortest & newest branches of the phylogenetic tree limb of Galapagos finches: however the other part of his theory came from his own English country hobby of breeding fancy pigeons.  Using artificial selection to create hugely exaggerated features (like absurd google eyes and a minuscule beak) helped him understand that a similar dynamic was at work in his pigeon cote and on the newly separated Galapagos islands.

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Of course this doesn’t explain the eyes of these particular pigeons. The Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon did indeed originate in Budapest in the first decade of the twentieth century.  The birds were bred by the Poltl brothers, a family of pigeon racing enthusiasts who wanted a high flying bird with incredible endurance.  I guess the tiny beak must save weight, and the big eyes allow for higher flying?  Can any pigeon racers back this up?  Whatever the mechanism, the Poltl brothers succeeded: the original Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeons were able to stay in the air longer than other breeds and they flew at a greater height.  Unfortunately this also meant that more of them were lost (both to nervous disposition and to the perils of the open sky).

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Anyway, today these pigeons are more famous as charismatic pets than as racers.  They reputedly have a very affectionate and alert temperament (with perhaps a trace of their original nervous disposition).  I am not sure I have the patient temperament necessary to push against the bounds of nature as a fancy pigeon breeder, but I am glad that someone is doing so just so we have the Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon to look at!

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Pigeon on a Peach Branch(桃鳩圖,桃鳩図 [ja]), (Emperor Huizong) ink and color on silk hanging

This rather beautiful pigeon on a peach branch is a superb and ancient example of the bird-flower painting which has been such a mainstay of Chinese art.  The small ink and color painting is on a piece of silk mounted on a hanging scroll.  The artist completed the work during the Northern Song dynasty around the turn of the 12th century BC.  Each of these bird-flower paintings is meant to impart a sort of allegorical moral lesson, although I confess that I cannot understand what is meant by the lovely colorful (and plumply self-satisfied) pigeon seated next to the one opened peach blossom as winter turns haltingly to spring.

But who cares if the moral lesson of the work is too subtle for us? Not only is it a lovely painting with all the strength of Song dynasty art, the painter was remarkable in his own right.   Zhao Ji was born into the greatest luxury imaginable and spent the first half of his life becoming one of China’s greatest literati painters.  Unfortunately, his brother, Emperor Zhezong, the 7th emperor of the Song Dynasty, died without a son, and Zhao Ji was forced to take on the quotidian responsibilities of running China in a addition to his cultural and calligraphic practice (and working on his exquisite paintings). Zhao Ji ascended to the throne in 1100 as Emperor Huizong of Song, and although he is fondly remembered as one of China’s greatest painters, he was also one of China’s worst emperors.  After abdicating in favor of his son, he was captured by Jurchens in 1126 and became a sad pawn of the duplicitous Jin Empire (a foreign “counter empire” based in the north which opposed the Song and set up the conditions for the Mongol conquest of a broken China.

The lesson here could that having a person who should be doing something else run your enormous empire is a big mistake…or maybe that dividing your country into two battling states sets a nation up for disaster, however I choose to read Emperor Huizong’s story as an artist’s tale of great success at bird flower painting.

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I Can See You (Christian DeFillipo, 2019) Flashe on Canvas

Here are a couple of lovely pigeon-themed paintings by my friend, Christian DeFillipo, a Queens-based artist who studied at Rhode Island School of Design.  Christian’s intimately sized paintings are made with flashe, a vinyl-based paint which dries in homogeneous opaque layers.  The effect combines the best aspects of screen printing, paper cutting, and acrylic painting.  Christian’s works all seem to exist in a world of warm summer colors and ingenuous happiness.  The flattened forms and decorative foliage makes one imagine of a more innocent Matisse. Although Christian’s work does not always have the pastoral simplicity and winsomeness of these two particular canvases (some of his other works delve into Indonesian and marine motifs, for example), they are usually comparably carefree in tone and delightful in warm vibrant color.

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Both these paintings focus on pigeons, which are emblematic of freedom and happiness. The painting at top is titled “I Can See You” and the courting icterine doves put me strongly in mind of the doves in Boucher or even in Roman artworks (for doves were sacred to Venus).  I stupidly failed to write down the title of the second work, but the single white dove flying away from the painting, likewise gives the impression of a divine visitation–but not for scary eschatological purposes–just a pleasure visit.  Christian’s works are likewise a beatific miniature vacation–a daytrip to a park in summer where it feels like the doves and the trees are secretly smiling with us.  You should check them out at his online gallery (and thanks, Christian, for letting me use the images).

 

Happy Earth Day!  I am afraid I am a bit under the weather (which seems appropriate, since our beautiful blue planet is catching a fever too). However it is worth devoting some time today to thinking about our planet and the entwined webs of ecosystems which support all living things (very much including human beings).

The great masters of global capitalism claim that the Earth is inexhaustible and made solely for human delights.  To hear them tell it, only if ever more people consume ever more consumer rubbish will we all thrive. However that claim always seemed suspect, and the notably swift decline of entire ecosystems within even my lifetime suggests that fundamental aspects of our way of life and our long-term goals need to be rethought.   It is a formidable problem because the nations of Earth are facing a near-universal political crisis where authoritarians are flourishing and democracies are faltering.  So far, the authoritarians don’t seem substantially concerned with a sustainable future for living things (or with any laudatory goal, really).  This trend could get worse in the future as agricultural failures, invasive blights, and extreme weather events cause people to panic and flee to “safe” arms of the dictators (this would be a stupid choice since strongmen, despots, and tyrants are anything but safe in a any context).

These frightening projections of doom are hardly a foregone conclusion though. A great many people of all political and ideological stripes are worried about the future and are working hard to ensure that humankind and all of our beautiful extended family on the tree of life make it into the future.  Part of this is going to involve engineering and biomedical breakthroughs, but political and cultural breakthroughs will be needed as well.

I am ill-prepared to write out my proposals at length (since I would really like to lie down with some ginger ale), but fortunately I am a visual artist and I spent the winter of 2018 preparing a dramatic planetary image to capture my own anxiety for the world and its living things without necessarily giving in utterly to my fears and anxieties.  I was going to introduce it later, but EarthDay is a good time to give you a sneak peak (plus it goes rather well with my Maundy Thursday blog post).

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Here is the Great Flounder–the allegorical embodiment of how Earth life if everywhere under our feet and around us, but we can’t necessarily fathom it easily, because of our scale.  Speaking of scale (in multiple ways I guess), I continue to have trouble with WordPress’ image tool, so I am afraid that you will have to make due with this small image until I learn about computers…or until posters get printed up (dangit…why do we have to sell ourselves all of the time?).  In the meantime here is a teaser detail to help you in your own contemplation of if/how we can make Earth a paradise for ourselves without destroying it for the other inhabitants.

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We will talk more about this soon, but in the meantime happy Earth Day.  We will work together to save our giant blue friend, I know it!  Let’s just collaborate to do so before we lose African elephants, numbats, mysterious siphonophores, or any of our beloved fellow lifeforms on this spherical island hurtling through space.

Neapolitan Flounder

It is my birthday this week and, to celebrate, I wanted to share some special posts with you.  Unfortunately my schedule is not obliging to help me finish the larger philosophical piece I have been writing, so instead I am going to share a sculpture which I just finished (I was going to save it for later, but, sigh, life is short so let’s look at it now) .  This is “Neapolitan Flounder” a sculpture made of wood, bone, and plastic toys.  It is one of the extensive flatfish series of artworks which I have been working on, however, unlike the drawings which take a more expansive view of ecology and human history, “Neapolitan Flatfish” examines the prevailing ethos of the time which is to capture people’s money by providing them with exactly what they want (in this case the empty calories of airy frozen confections).  Of course these aren’t actually delicious soft serve ice cream cones, they are really plastic junk from the dollar store.  Yet given my unhappy history with making plastic toys, and given the ever growing burden of plastic detritus building up in the wild places of Planet Earth, perhaps the message becomes even more germane.  The flounder is a predator and a prey animal–the “middle class of the ocean” although serious overfishing is leading to a precipitous decline of populations around the world (which matters little to Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, who would not be unhappy if everything and everyone died five minutes after he concludes his own earthly existence as a master of crooked insider deals).  Ahem…anyway, sometimes it is a bit unclear who is fishing and who is being fished, but what could be more delightful than the unexpected charm of three different flavors (and different colors) which compliment each other perfectly being placed next to each other in one simple Rothko-like package?  Please ignore the bone hook and the glittering blue predatory eyes and get ready for some birthday fun here at Ferrebeekeeper.

Also, don’t forget to ask the Great Flounder some of your own questions.

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For many years I studied at the Art Students League of New York, a storied yet inexpensive atelier-style art school/collective which accounts about half to ¾ of all eminent American artists as members, pupils, or instructors at one point or another.  I would work all day as a stupid flunky at a bank and then go to the League and paint for three and a half hours every night.  At the Art Students League, one could find every sort of artist from around the world, from international art superstars to first time hobbyists. I mostly studied with the great portrait painter Ron Scherr who drew young luminaries of contemporary realism to him like a man casting loafs of bread in Union Square park draws pigeons.  There were many gifted Scherr students whose works and careers I need to highlight, but arguably the most gifted draftsperson was my friend Mark Kevin Gonzales, a chess player who grew up in Brooklyn (the rest of us just moved here to make it in the arts) and went to the famous Brooklyn Technical high School.

Since Mark is a native New Yorker, his artwork highlights life in the city, and these particular artworks highlight the animal life of the city, our famous rock pigeons (Columba livia) which throng the city’s parks and statues.  Indeed they are famous urbanites around the world.  The watercolor painting at the top highlights Mark’s mastery of  form shading and color.  The pigeon has been rendered in swift staccato strokes of watercolor (a famously unforgiving media) yet because of his masterful brushwork, the piece has an illusion of three dimensional form and conveys the impression of details which aren’t actually there.  A master’s secret is that if you can get the first few lines exactly right, you don’t have to agonize over a bunch of fussy little lines (but…oh let’s not talk about the years and years of practice necessary to get those big flat shapes to come out exactly right with the flick of a wrist).   The pigeons feathers seem to glisten with shimmering iridescence which is upon close inspection revealed to be a simple wash of viridian.  Its lively eye and cocked head makes the viewer think that the bird is observing the observer from beyond this little square of paper.  I suspect the bird really was observing Mark closely in whatever park he painted this (the poor pigeon probably though he was being sized up by a big weird cat as Mark crouched at his traveling easel).

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The second painting is even more of a quick sketch…but it is also more of a celebration (and a political piece).  This pigeon is strutting his stuff as joyous 4th of July fireworks go off in the background.  Notice how the pyrotechnics have colored the urban bird red white and blue.  Rock Pigeons are not originally from the new world (neither are Mark’s black and Philippine ancestors, come to think of it) but they have moved here to New York and lived here successfully for generations and they have a greater claim to being native New Yorkers than just about anybody.  It is good to see the patriotic national colors fitted out for an existence which is completely urbanized and it is so good to see some of Mark’s playful small works (he usually works in exquisitely rendered large format portrait painting).  You should check out his amazing work in Drawing Magazine or at his website, or just take a gander at his astonishingly lovely drawings and paintings on Instagram…Oh and tell him what a gifted artist he is: he certainly already knows, but it is always still good to hear.

 

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Today’s post takes a closer look at a troubling tale from Canada.  During the period between 2001 and 2008, as American investors were bilked out of money by Bernie Madoff, a similar Ponzi scheme was taking place in the north.  However, in the northern version, the McGuffin at the heart of the grift wasn’t finance/investing…it was pigeons.  The man behind the scam, the pigeon king himself, was Arlan Galbraith (his business was even named “Pigeon King International”).  In seven years he sold $42 million worth of pigeons and, when his empire collapsed, he was on the hook to buy $356 million worth of breeding pairs of pigeons.  Aside from Mike Tyson’s prize roller pigeons or suchlike fancy birds, pigeons are not really expensive creatures.  The mind shrinks back from imagining how many pigeons one could buy for $356 million dollars.

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The pigeon Ponzi scheme didn’t really make any sense as a business or as a scam. Galbraith sold breeding pigeons to small farmers with a promise to buy back the offspring.  He would then sell the resulting pigeons to other farmers with the same promise.  Since he paid for the fowl (and since farmers are competent at poultry husbandry), the pigeons produced by this scheme burgeoned in population.  Galbraith enticed investors with talk of breeding fancy pigeons to sell to foreign pigeon fanciers, poultry, magnates and Arab sheiks.  He also claimed his program was producing a new sort of meat bird to bring squab to the dinner table everywhere in lieu of chicken and turkey.  Yet the birds in the “program” were just normal garden-variety pigeons. It was a recipe for limitless growth to nowhere.  Hundreds and hundreds of farmers joined Pigeon King International as suppliers/marks.

Except, of course, there is no such thing as limitless growth.  As soon as Galbraith ran out of new investors, he could not pay for all of the pigeons being produced (it is a miracle he dealt with the logistics of this crazy idea for as long as he did).  The end was profoundly sad.  Small farmers across Canada were left with whole barns and aviaries filled with unsaleable mongrel pigeons.  There were no Arab sheiks.  There was no market for squab.   There was nothing but the pigeon king dashing around the country buying pigeons and immediately selling them to others.

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The authorities were left with a situation where broke farmers had hundreds of thousands of worthless pigeons eating them out of house and home.  Releasing the birds into the wild would have been cruel to the pigeons (and dangerous to public health) so the authorities visited the largest barns with carbon monoxide rigs to gas the pigeons. Smaller operations were left euthanizing their stock on their own. Galbraith was arrested and conducted his own defense (in a manner as earnest, incompetent, and peculiar as his business).  He is now in jail and, since he is not young, that is probably the last act of his tale. Innumerable farmers were ruined by this saga.  Hundreds of thousands of pigeons died.  The pigeon king is spending his dotage in prison, and for what?

I have been staring at this story in puzzled wonder trying to determine the lesson (as more than a general cautionary tale against pyramid schemes). Aside from pyramid schemes, there is no precise analogy for the pigeon king’s business plan which leaps to mind…save one. The pigeon scheme required infinite growth to work (and more and more energy to maintain) even though there was no final payoff plan or escape hatch. It reminds me a bit of, well, everything.

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Society requires everyone to buy plastic junk that nobody will want in a year.  The garment industry churns out shirts that disintegrate after we wear them a few times.  The internet mostly consists of website after website of the same listicles and idiotic celebrity folderol.  If we stopped making this stuff and did better things with our time, everyone would go broke and the world economy would break. There are worthwhile things going on and goods and services which people truly need (or really want badly enough to be worthwhile), but beneath it all there is the same impossible promise of endless growth.  If that growth sputters out in any big way, the great international machine which we are all part of breaks.  Even if (human) populations decline, the capitalist system enters a dark feedback loop of too few consumers which is hard to escape.

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Conmen call their targets “pigeons.”  The story has me concerned that we are all pigeons in both a figurative and a literal way.  We are all busy producing pigeons of one sort or another for the Galbraiths of the world and praying that we can keep juggling everything before the Earth’s climate breaks, or we run out of oil, or there are too many bankrupt people to keep the system afloat.  Last week I wrote a post excoriating economists for not understanding primate behavior.  In this post I am begging them to go back into the library and come up with a system that does not rely so utterly on impossible growth targets.  If you walk through my beloved home of New York and look at all the people strutting bipedally in their drab business casual garb I feel like you might be reminded of certain avian colonies.  Take a look at Japan’s demographics, or the projected population of the United States…or the world, then compare those graphs with what companies say they will sell.  Spare a moment of panicky prayer for all the pigeons…and for the pigeon king too.

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