You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘birds’ tag.

e4eeb04fefb451c33e4d67c16b322022.jpg Romulus and Remus, the mythological demigod twins who founded Rome were sons of the war god Mars. After being left to die, the infants were suckled by a she-wolf in a sacred cave and later raised in pastoral beauty by the shepherd Faustulus.  The twins experienced other exciting Tintin-style adventures with sundry bandits, rebels, exiled kings, grandfathers, and what-not.  Yet the part of their mythological story which is arguably of greatest interest is when the brothers decided to found the city of Rome.  Immediately the twins (who had been inseparable allies through battles, love affairs, tribal intrigues, and wolf-childhood) fell out over…urban planning.  Romulus wished to build on the Palatine Hill, (above the cave where they were reared); Remus, however, preferred the Aventine Hill.  They argued fiercely and finally decided to let the gods decide.

Messages from the gods can be also be divisive and the oracular battle between the brothers did not end their dispute.  Remus saw six birds flying above his hill and proclaimed that the gods favored the Aventine.  Romulus saw a full dozen birds over the Palantine and proclaimed that the deities wished for this hill to be the heart of their city.  The argument over the direction their society would take and what the gods were really trying to say about how the nation should be built and administered caused the brothers to fall out forever.  Soon Remus was dead (perhaps by one of Romulus’ supporters but maybe at the hands of Romulus himself) and the Palantine became the center of Rome.  Yet the dispute left its shadow and Rome was always torn between battling rulers (both hills became great, but the Palantine was always foremost).  The story is a myth, of course, but it is the Romans’ own myth about how their society came into existence.

Ugly-PigeonAs a city dweller, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of pigeons (Columbidae) solely as the rock doves (Columba livia) which are the familiar gray and iridescent birds. Rock Doves originated in North Africa, Central Asia, and Europe.  Humans domesticated these birds in antiquity and carried them everywhere during the age of exploration and colonization.  Like the hero of a dystopian novel, the rock dove then cast off its oppressors (manipulative giant primates who were selectively breeding it to kill it and eat it!) and escaped to freedom and worldwide success.  However the rock dove is not the only pigeon—not at all—there are over 310 species in this family.  They are found everywhere on land except for the polar regions.  Some pigeons are analogous to clever tropical parrots, whereas others live like songbirds, or jungle fowl, or like grouse.  They live in deserts, jungles, forests, sand dunes, scrubland, cropland, caves…pretty much everywhere except for oceans and tundra.  Humankind has destroyed a few species of pigeons like the passenger pigeon, the giant pigeon (A.K.A. the Dodo), and the Socorro dove–an oddity which is extinct in the wild but lives cradled in the arms of pigeon fanciers like former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, however most doves are tough and resilient.  They thrive in our concrete cities.  They make livings as performers in Vegas! They fly into empty niches and expand to fill them out.

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In the Biblical myth of the flood, the first living thing to find habitable land after the flood subsided was a dove—which actually seems right.  Pigeons’ doughty wings have carried them to places where other varieties of bird never reached or colonized.  This omnipresence–combined with a placid temperament and serene beauty–has made the pigeon into a holy bird in both Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian myth. Indeed, the Holy Spirit, the most abstruse god in the Christian trinity (which already has some really weird divinities in it) is generally represented as a dove.

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Depiction of the Christian Holy Spirit as a dove, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in the apse of Saint Peter’s Basilica

The secret to the widespread success of the Columbidae however does not merely involve their strong flying ability.  They steal a trick from the mammals’ book: pigeons of both genders nurse their developing nestlings with “crop milk” a nutritious (albeit disgusting) foodstuff made of fluid filled cells sloughed off from the lining of the birds’ crops (a crop, by the way, is a digestive apparatus in birds—a sort of muscular pouch at the top of the gullet).  This strategy means that pigeon parents can feed their offspring even if they can’t immediately find food.  While other baby birds can be wiped out by a temporary food disruption, pigeon families have a safety net.

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Pigeons are not technically fowl—which constitutes the galliformes and anseriformes (and most domesticated birds).   It has been a while since I added a new category of animal to Ferrebeekeeper—perhaps I will add pigeons on the side over there.  They are more interesting than I imagined.

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The Otomi people are an indigenous Mesoamerican people of the Mexican Plateau.  During the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, the Otomi allied with the Spanish against the Aztecs (since the Aztecs were a hated upstart empire oppressing and enslaving them). Otomi populations practiced (and continue to practice) shamanism.  The sacred spirit animals of the shaman’s spirit journey take a central position in the most characteristic artforms of the Otomi—which consists of exquisite embroidered animals in dazzling colors.  This is the subject of today’s post because…well look at these textile artworks!  I just innately love them.  They are masterpieces.  The colorful animals seem to come to extravagant life on the elaborately sewn panels.

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In these embroidered medallions and picture squares, fantasy birds, fish, quadrupeds, and insects embroidered out of brilliant stripes swirl together among equally colorful flowers and vines. Most of the creatures seem to be based off of familiar domestic animals like burros, chickens, rabbits, turkeys, and bees—but the farm creatures are turning into each other and exchanging characteristics and identities.  I am a bit surprised that Ferrebeekeeper has only just found out about Otomi art….

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It isn’t like I went to the Mexican national art gallery and cherry-picked a few hallowed masterpieces from the walls either.  Most of these beautiful examples were for sale on the internet by anonymous living artists and artisans whose work I like better than basically anything on sale right now in Chelsea for a thousand times more.  I could have one of these amazing handmade artworks if I possessed…35 American dollars?  How can such a beautiful thing cost less than a dvd of Fifty Shades of Grey?  People who claim that the market is all-knowing should take note (and people who love beautiful art should be taking out their wallets).

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Hay Editor! Caption this - the Penguins

Ferrebeekeeper tries not to portray the world in black and white…yet some important issues are black and white. Additionally, some important issues are unable to fly. In fact some important issues live only in the southernmost reaches of the southern hemisphere and are formidable ocean predators which hunt squid, shrimp, and fish. These issues establish strong pair bonds for a season and work together to raise a single nestling. Um…which is to say that today is World Penguin Day! Ferrebeekeeper proudly salutes our many friends from the order Sphenisciformes! Everybody is familiar with these endearing, beautiful birds. Yet looking at penguins more carefully reveals that they are less familiar (and more remarkable) than we think.

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In the media, penguins are always portrayed as debonair bon vivants who are trying to kill Batman, or as the sidekick of villainous ice wizards, or as weak-minded props for Jim Carrey to fart on. Needless to say, this does them a terrible injustice. Penguins diverged from other birds before the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. The first basal penguins were the contemporaries of dinosaurs and giant mosasaurs. For 70 million years the birds have evolved to simultaneously live in swirling freezing oceans and on profoundly inhospitable land environs like desert coasts and icebergs.

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Penguins look like sad little drunken gnomes when they are walking on the land (although walking on ice cliffs is no mean feat for any creature). Underwater, however, they look like next generation naval weaponry. They can turn and maneuver with preternatural speed.

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One of the most remarkable pieces of footage I have seen of any animal was an underwater reel of a Gentoo penguin hunting a school of shimmering pilchard type fish. With lightning speed, the school of fish changed to evade the bird. The school swelled into a ball and then elongated and then melted away into glistening tendrils. It formed gyres and broke into equal halves and used every advantage of the 3-d underwater habitat to get away. The fish moved faster than I could see and darted off in ways I could not anticipate or understand, but always the penguin was faster and more nimble. She out-thought the group mind of the fish. She was unfazed by their otherworldly dazzle and picked them off one after the next with relentless ballet-like grace (all while swimming underwater on a breath of air). I wish I could describe it properly (or just find the footage online). It was beautiful in an overwhelming and otherworldly way…so perfect it was scary. And it convinced me that penguins have a rightful place among the greatest predators–like lions, saltwater crocodiles, peregrine falcons, (although those creatures eat carrion or steal other animal’s dinners, whereas penguins are super predators who only eat live prey).

There are 17-20 species of penguin, depending on which ornithologist you ask. Some dwell in temperate portions of Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and South America, but others are more familiar as the creatures of the extreme frozen south.  Some of these march  inland to the plains of Antartica where they spend the winter in nightmare cold and darkness. They are the only large animals to inhabit that frozen continent (unless you also count Norwegian scientists).

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The root of the word penguin is unknown. The word looks French, but it appeared in English and Dutch sources, before it appeared in French ones. Some linguists surmise that it came originally from the Welsh word for great auks which were the penguin analogue of the northern hemisphere. Great auks are forever gone from Earth…extinct since the mid nineteenth century (when they were hunted to death for their down and so their flesh could be used as fishbait).

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I bring up the sad stupid fate of the Great Auk for a reason. Penguin populations are plummeting. Usually humans kill off animals by hunting, industrial poisoning, or habitat destruction by means of development. Although it is true that the penguins which live in inhabited locations like Australia, New Zealand, and Africa, face pressure from housing development (or sometimes from oil spills like the poor guys in sweaters above).  However the penguins in the southern oceans are facing threats from the planetary changes which the oceans are undergoing.  So world penguin day is important and meaningful…but I’m not exactly sure what we need to do to help these ancient formally dressed predatory friends.

Oba Adémuwagun Adésida II ( photo taken in 1959)

Oba Adémuwagun Adésida II ( photo taken in 1959)

Hey! Have you in any way been affiliated with or interacted with the internet in the last two decades? If so, you have probably received a heartfelt plea for assistance from a deposed/dispossessed/dispirited Nigerian prince.  This famous email scam requested a small amount of money upfront in exchange for a big chunk of the royal treasury once the hapless royal heir ascended to his (grammatically shaky) throne.  Since Nigeria is a federated republic (and since this was, to reiterate, a scam), nobody ever received the royal payola.  However there is a kernel of historical truth within the confidence trick: Nigeria was once an assortment of kingdoms, emirates, and tribal lands which was annealed together by the British.  Each of these principalities (or state-like entities) had a ruler, and, although they were stripped of legal power during the colonial era, the various eclectic potentates have held onto ceremonial, spiritual, and cultural authority.

Yoruba Ade

Yoruba Ade

All of which is to say, there are no Nigerian princes, but there are prince-like beings, each of whom has a different set of royal regalia.   These “crown jewels” take the form of thrones, statues, “magical” items, and royal outfits…including sacred headdresses.  The Yoruba people (who constitute the majority of Nigeria’s ever-increasing population) vested particular authority in ceremonial “crowns” known as ades.  An ade is a conical beaded cap usually decorated with beads and faces.  The kings of the Yoruba people styled themselves as “obas” (an oba being a sort of combination of king, high priest, and chief).  The symbol of the oba’s authority was his ade—his crown (or for a high obas–the “adenla” which means “great crown”).

Beaded Crown "Ade" (ca. 20th Century; Glass beads, cloth, thread, and basketry)

Beaded Crown “Ade”
(ca. 20th Century; Glass beads, cloth, thread, and basketry)

Obas were the powerful rulers of the Yoruba and their ades were the ceremonial font of their authority.  This power was connected to the numinous world of spirits, gods, and orishas (which this blog has glanced upon in talking about voodoo—the syncretic new world religion based on Yoruba spiritual concepts). To quote the British Museum’s culturally suspect (but nicely written) website:

Beaded and veiled crowns…are traditionally worn by those kings who could trace their ancestry to Ododua, the mythic founder and first king of the Yoruba people. The crown is called an orisha, a deity, and is placed upon the king’s head by his female attendant. Powerful medicines are placed at the top of the crown to protect the king’s head and thus his future. The veil that covers the king’s face hides his individuality and increases attention on the crown itself, the real centre of power. The birds decorating the crown represent the royal bird, okin.

Originally ades had long beaded veils to conceal the faces of their wearers, but European ideas about royal headwear influenced the makers, and many more recent examples of the craft resemble European crowns.  The beautiful beadwork and impressive otherworldly artistry of ades has made them popular—so some of these examples may be constructed for the tourist trade.  Nevertheless, the Yoruba ade is a very impressive sort of crown.  Here is a little gallery of online images of ades.

Yoruba Ade Oba (by ÌMÒ DÁRA)

Yoruba Ade Oba (by ÌMÒ DÁRA)

Yoruba Beaded Ade (Oba's Crown) from Southwest Nigeria (Barakat Gallery)

Yoruba Beaded Ade (Oba’s Crown) from Southwest Nigeria (Barakat Gallery)

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Ade Olójúmérìndilógún, (with 16 faces) from Formação da Cultura Yoruba

Ade Olójúmérìndilógún, (with 16 faces) from Formação da Cultura Yoruba

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Chief's hat from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria (ca. 1940)

Chief’s hat from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria (ca. 1940)

 

The Memorial, After the Storm (Laurie Hogan, ca. early 21st century, oil on canvas)

The Memorial, After the Storm (Laurie Hogin, ca. early 21st century, oil on canvas)

Laurie Hogin is a contemporary artist who paints acid-hued animals, fruit, and fungi posed together in a landscape of molten color.  Her work “The Memorial, After the Storm” presents a collection of unnatural flora and fauna which only exist in the artist’s imaginary realm. Silver snakes glide towards pseudo foxes, as parti-color fowl jostle with pied lizards.  The effulgent pears, berries, toadstools, and pumpkins flow out of an unreal pastoral landscape which literally morphs into perfect geometric shapes as it approaches the foreground.  Hogin’s paintings grab the viewer’s attention and refuse to let go, but the garish creatures and pale fruiting bodies pose an elusive quandary about humankind’s unnatural tastes. It almost appears that the grumpy birds and uppity mammalian predators are peeved that they don’t actually exist and never will. This is an ecosystem built to appeal to jaded primate senses—a fact which makes its unreal inhabitants fretful and sullen.

Bronze Turkey Tom (Meleagris gallopavo)

Bronze Turkey Tom (Meleagris gallopavo)

Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus)

Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus)

A while ago, ferrebeekeeper added the new category “fowl”.  So far, entries in this category include a write-up of predatory ducks, geese the size of dinosaurs, and terrifying people in duck costumes (not to mention the yet-to-be incorporated category of turkeys)—a pretty auspicious start for the topic!  But what exactly does “fowl” mean?  Although in English, “fowl” can be used as a general term for all birds, the word has a more specific scientific meaning:  fowl denotes a combined group of two extremely important biological orders of birds, the Galliformes (game fowl) and the Anseriformes (waterfowl).  Cladists, taxonomists who classify biological organisms according to shared ancestors, have discovered that birds from these two orders share numerous physiological features and descend jointly from a common ancestor (which most likely lived in the Cretaceous or earlier).

Mandarin Duck ((Aix galericulata)

Mandarin Duck ((Aix galericulata)

Black Swan (Cygnus atratus)

Black Swan (Cygnus atratus)

The vast majority of economically/agriculturally important domesticated birds are either galliformes or waterfowl (I am omitting pet birds like canaries, parrots, emus, pigeons, and, um, gyrefalcons, and concentrating on farm birds).  Galliformes include pheasants, quail, grouse, turkeys, junglefowl, partridges, and guineafowl (among other taxa, living and extinct).   Waterfowl include geese, ducks, swans, and screamers.  Cladists (with typical lack of euphony) call the combined group the “Galloanserae”.

Buff Orpington Rooster (Gallus gallus domesticus) by Chris Mullineux

Buff Orpington Rooster (Gallus gallus domesticus) by Chris Mullineux

Palawan Peacock Pheasant (Polyplectron napoleonis) by Rene Lausberg

Palawan Peacock Pheasant (Polyplectron napoleonis) by Rene Lausberg

Although golden pheasants, black swans, and green peacocks seem extremely different (except in terms of extravagant beauty), the birds of  Galloanserae share surprising similarities.  They produce prolific clutches of eggs–which is especially unusual for large birds–and the resultant chicks are unusually precocious.  Baby ducks or turkeys can soon run after their mother and baby megapodes emerge from the incubation mound ready to fly (compare that with the passerines or raptors whose young are helpless and immobile for weeks or longer).

Southern Screamer (Chauna torquata) by Susan Roehl

Southern Screamer (Chauna torquata) by Susan Roehl

Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)

Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)

Additionally fowl are polygynous or polygamous.  Many other birds form close monogamous relationships (some of which last for life) but fowl tend to be rather, er, promiscuous.   Domestic chickens are notable for their harem-style sexual relations and dabbling ducks are infamous for the violent amoral chaos of their courtship.   Likewise, fowl can hybridize easily and in strange ways.  Birds which live in different genera can have courtships, produce eggs, and even conceive offspring.  In fact common mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) originated in Siberia but have interbred so frequently with American black duck (Anas rubripes), and with Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) that the species distinctions are breaking down.   Stranger and more unlikely fowl pairings are not unknown (and the resultant offspring are sometimes not infertile) but I will leave those soap opera stories for another day….

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Lady Amethyst Pheasant (hybrid)

Lady Amethyst Pheasant (hybrid)

Cinereous Bunting (Emberiza cineracea) Photo copyright Mark S Jobling.


Cinereous Bunting (Emberiza cineracea) Photo copyright Mark S Jobling.

In Latin, ashes are called cinis and , similarly, the Latin word for ashy gray or ash-like is cinereous.  English borrowed this word in the 17th century and it has long been used to describe the color which is dark gray tinged with brown shininess.  As with many Latin color names (like fulvous and icterine) the word cinereous is often used in the scientific name of birds which are very prone to be this drab color.

Cinereous Vulture--photo by Esquire Magazine(really?)

Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)–photo by Esquire Magazine(really?)

However, the concept of color is not quite as simple as it first seems.  Different items produce ocular sensations as a result of the way they reflect or emit light, yet different wavelengths of light are visible to different eyes.  Humans are trichromats.  We have photoreceptor cells capable of seeing blue, green, and red.  Most birds are tetrachromats and can apprehend electromagnetic wavelengths in the ultraviolet spectrum as well.  Many of the dull cinereous birds we witness may glow and sparkle with colors unknown to the human eye and unnamed by the human tongue.

The wing of an owl to us

The wing of an owl to us

The wing of an owl to ultraviolet film

The wing of an owl to ultraviolet film

 

Italian plums

Italian plums

Some colors are more subtle than others.  In fact some colors are so subtle that they are wholly ancillary to others.  Fine artists are attuned to all manner of delicate films, coatings, glazes, and washes which are added to a deeper color in order to produce a sense of depth or the illusion of texture. Subtle color-words—those which describe a texture, a mood, or a translucent quality are deeply appreciated.  Today’s color describes a secondary color which was known deep into classical antiquity and earlier.  The word glaucous derives from the Latin “glaucus” which in turn derives from the Greek “glaukos” (all of which mean the same thing)–a waxy, shiny gray/green/blue neutral color such as the blush found on fresh grapes.  If you have ever eaten fresh grapes or plums you will be familiar with this color as the delicate coating on purple plums and grapes (and if you have not eaten fresh grapes and plums, who are you? Live better!).

Grapes

Grapes

Certain plants also have a glaucous coatings—such as cacti and other succulents.  Ornithologists, ever in a bind to come up with Latin and Greek words to describe the numerous species of bird have also taken to the word.  Birds which have waxy neutral gray-blue feathers often have “glaucus” in their binomial names (just as yellowish birds are often known as fulvous).  The glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens) of the Pacific Northwest is a fine example.  The birds’ grey wings look as though they were glazed on by a gifted confectioner.

Glaucous Winged Gull (gull (Larus glaucescens)

Glaucous Winged Gull (gull (Larus glaucescens)

I like the word because I like plums, cacti, and birds (obviously in different ways) but I also appreciate the concept of a pale color which is always delicately brushed across something else.  With a poke of the finger or a good washing in the kitchen sink, the color glaucous would vanish.

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The Fulvous Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna bicolor) photo by Bob Hall

Fulvous is a color which is very prevalent in the natural world.  It is a dull mixture of yellow and brown with hints of red.   The name comes from the Latin word “fulvus” which translates as “a dull yellow-brown color with a hint of red” (sometimes etymology is easy).  Since “fulvus” is a Latin word there are a shocking number of animal species which have the color incorporated in their binomial scientific name.   There are also quite a few creatures (particularly birds) known as the fulvous such-and-such in English.  Here is a little gallery of fulvous/fulvus beasties.

Cryptocephalus (Burlinius) fulvus, photographed by Josef Dvořák

 

Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva)

 

The common brown lemur (Eulemur fulvus) photo by Emmanuel Van Heygen

 

The Fulvus Roundleaf Bat (Hipposideros fulvus) painting by Gray, 1838

 

The Fulvous Owl (Strix fulvescens)

 

The Fulvous Forest Skimmer (Neurothemis fulvia)

 

Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos macei)

 

The tawny grisette (Amanita fulva)

 

The Fulvous Limpet (Iothia fulva)

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