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Today we present one of the treasures of the Louvre—a duck shaped cosmetics kit from a tomb at Minet el-Beida—a Levantine city which stood beside the ancient harbor of Ugarit (which is in what is today (or was yesterday) Syria).  One of the pegs is a pivot and the other is a clip. By pulling one out, the lid can be swung opened to access the powder or ointment within.

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The duck was carved out of Hippopotamus ivory by a master craftsperson of long ago.  It was made in Ugarit in 1300 or 1200 BC—roughly contemporary with Mycenaean civilization.  There were civilizations ringing the Mediterranean in this era—Hittites, Amorites, Mycenaeans & Cretans, Ilrians, Trojans, Etruscans, and Cimmerians.  They traded with distant cultures like the Harrapans and Iberians.   To the south was the great kingdom of Egypt. Indeed, this duck is a creation made possible by the flourishing trade of this era.  It is of African ivory, but was made in Ugarit.

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Around 1200, mysterious barbarian hordes from the west swept away this entire world.  These “sea people” swamped each kingdom in turn and swept it away—until the Egyptian army commanded by the god-king Ramses III (first pharaoh of the 20th dynasty) halted their advance around 1180.  Alas, Ugarit was destroyed and burned to the ground by the uncouth barbarians who had no care for trade, however we still have this exquisite makeup duck to remember the city of traders and priests and farmers and charioteers. With its enigmatic expression and wide shocked eyes, there is something sad about the duck, but there is a comic playfulness too.

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I wonder if 3300 years from now our cities and lives will be boiled down to a single tragicomic plastic makeup kit in an unvisited room in a museum in a yet unfounded city.  It is a disturbing thought.

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The spur-winged goose (Plectropterus gambensis) is a large waterfowl which is quite common in wetlands throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  Adults are 75–115 cm (30–45 in) long and weigh up to 7 kg (15 pounds).  The bird is a close relative of both true geese and shelducks (although they aren’t really geese or ducks but have their own genus).  They are intelligent gregarious birds which live in flocks of around 50.  They look somewhat plain—their feathers are dun, sable, and white, and their faces and beaks are red–like geese badly made up to look like vultures. Yet spur-winged geese are amazing animals in several respects (I mean beyond just being geese–which live for decades, have complicated social lives, and can fly across whole continents).

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Spur-winged geese have a habit of eating blister beetles and storing the poisonous cantharidin from the insects within their bodies.  Cantharidin has a long strange history in human society which you can look up on your own (it was known as “Spanish Fly”), however it is principally notable for being poisonous: 10 mg of cantharidin is enough to kill an adult human!  Spur-winged geese–particularly those which live in and around the Gambiaare often poisonous–or at least they have flesh which is toxic to humans.

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Additionally, males have dinosaur-like spurs on their wings which they use, dinosaur-like, to fight each other for females.  These wing-spurs are not trivial.  Poultry keepers who have tried to keep the spur-winged goose with other birds have suffered losses to the fearsome sharpened wrist-spurs (and the aggressive territoriality of the spur-winged males).

Probably the most remarkable thing about the spur-winged goose though is its speed.  These birds are blazing fast.   They appear on shortlists with crazy birds like peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, swifts, and frigatebirds.  Although they cannot dive at speeds approaching the raptors or maneuver like the swifts,  spur-winged geese can really move quickly.  When the goose gets up to speed, it can travel 142 kilometers per hour (88 miles per hour).  It is as fast as the Delorean in Back to the Future (though it apparently lacks time-traveling abilities).

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So, to sum up the spur-winged goose: it is an omnivore which lives throughout the most competitive ecosystems of Africa. It has fighting spurs on its wings, can fly as fast as a World War I warplane, and is toxic. I guess I am saying that you need to respect the spur-winged goose!

We all know that South Asia and East Asia feature the most populous cities and nations on the planet…in terms of human life. But is this true for ducks as well? Here is a humorous/nightmarish/cute/troubling (?) video clip of hundreds of thousands of ducks stampeding through the roads of a town in Thailand. I was unable to find out all the details, but I will let the madness speak for itself. Keep watching the video—there is an intermission, but more ducks are on the way!
By means of translation and interviews, Yahoo news has provided us with some of the details of this avian stampede writing that, “Jack Sarathat lives in Thailand and was driving through Nakhon Pathom, about an hour west of Bangkok. Suddenly he was forced to bring his car to a halt. About 100,000 ducks were on the loose and taking over the rural road in the Bang Len district.”

Although we know the place and the person on camera, we still don’t know why these ducks were on the move or where they were from (though it must have been some sort of industrial duck farm clearing inventory). The article says that none of the ducks were injured, but they look far too delicious for me to believe that without question.
This video contextualizes the earlier post about Zhu Yigui, a Fujianese duck farmer, who rose to be rebel king of Formosa before the Chinese authorities of the day crushed him like an egg. It is possible I snickered some when I read that his qualification for leadership was the ability to train and lead ducks. I am not laughing now—it is obvious that ducks in aggregate are a mighty force!

Artist's Interpretation

Artist’s Interpretation

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) Photo by Arie Ouwerkerk

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) Photo by Arie Ouwerkerk

One of my friends on the internet just now took to social media to challenge the world with the following truism: “Try as hard as you want, but you can’t make a duck look badass.” I don’t know what prompted this outburst (!) but I am willing to bet it had something to do with one of the abominable duck mascots which fill professional and semi-professional sports leagues with Howard the Duck-esque ugliness and horror (and, indeed, these doofy mascots never manage to look badass, no matter how hard the designers try).

Behold the blood red eyes and needle beak! (photo by birdingmaine.com)

Behold the blood red eyes and needle beak! (photo by birdingmaine.com)

Fortunately a greater force than the University of Oregon has taken up this challenge—and with much greater success. The red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) is a duck which lives throughout Siberia, Scandinavia, Scotland, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, and the northern fastnesses of Canada (i.e. Canada). The predatory duck can sometimes be seen overwintering along the East and West coasts of America, the Chinese coast, Japan, the Koreas, England, Western Europe, or on the lakes and Inland Seas of Central Asia. In retrospect, the red-breasted merganser’s range includes most of the northern hemisphere except for the tropics and the extreme north—which should give you a clue as to what a badass the duck truly is. The ducks fly north in summer to breed on lakes, rivers, and coasts. In winter they live in coastal waters or in the open ocean.

Red Breasted Mergansers relaxing in their warm winter home--Lake Erie

Red Breasted Mergansers relaxing in their warm winter home–the open waters of Lake Erie (photo by Jim McCormac)

Merganser serrator has a ferocious appearance. The male has a black spikey crest, blood-red eyes, and a pointy black beak filled with needle sharp serrations (with a hook at the end). Oh, also his feet are incarnadine color with razor claws. The female has a similar shape, but her head is drab colored and she does not have the bright white ringneck and signal feathers of the male. The ducks are entirely predatory—they only eat living things. The adults catch all sorts of small water creatures including aquatic arthropods, amphibians, mollusks, and worms, but most of all they live on fish. The ducks dive down into the water and hunt the fish directly, so they are stupendous swimmers.

Mergansers desport amorously (photo by Marco Valentini)

Mergansers disport amorously (photo by Marco Valentini)

The ducks brood between 5 and 13 eggs. A day after they hatch the nestlings take to the water…and to the hunt! Ducklings feed themselves without help from their parents, although they tend to eat aquatic insect larvae and tadpoles (at first). To recapitulate, the red-breasted merganser lives in Siberia and North Korea or on the open ocean. It eats only living things which are caught and swallowed alive and whole into its inescapable mouth of needles. Make fun of mascots, all you like, but respect the living sawbills!

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A contemporary duck farmer in China leads his charges along a busy street.

A contemporary duck farmer in China leads his charges along a busy street.

Zhu Yigui was a Fujianese duck farmer who lived in Formosa (now Taiwan) during the 18th century.  He was said to command his ducks with martial precision:  according to legend, he even trained his ducks to  march in military formations like soldiers (although mother ducks have long mastered the same feat with their ducklings–so perhaps Zhu’s soldierly duck-training prowess was less illustrious than legend would make it seem).   In 1721 an earthquake rocked the island and caused extensive damage.  Some people lost everything. The imperial prefect of Formosa was not interested in hearing excuses and levied punitive taxes on the peasantry—even though smallholders were trying to cope with disastrous losses from the earthquake.

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Unable to put up with this abuse from the incompetent Qing authorities, the people rose in rebellion.  When they were looking for a leader they remembered the duck-raising prowess of Zhu Yigui who thus became a general.  On the 19th of April of 1721 he attacked and captured the city of Gangshan.  Soon other rebel factions joined the rebellion, as did the oft-abused aboriginal people of Formosa.  Zhu Yigui was given the sobriquet “Mother Duck King.”  His forces went on to capture Tainan, the island’s capital without even fighting.

Unfortunately, Zhu’s mastery over ducks did not adequately prepare him for dealing with rebels.  He quarreled with his fellow rebel captains just as the Machu relief army was landing on Formosa.  The rebels fell apart in pitched battle with professional soldiers and Zhu Yigui was captured and executed. Because of these troubling events duck farming was prohibited in Central Taiwan for many years.  Still, whenever one compiles a list of illustrious duck-breeders from the Qing dynasty, Zhu’s name is certainly on the list!

Wheat gray partridges and Orange (Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, 1733, Oil on canvas)

Wheat gray partridges and Orange (Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, 1733, Oil on canvas)

One of the greatest still life painters of all time was Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). Chardin spent almost his entire life in Paris creating still life paintings of common kitchen and household items (and occasionally painting domestic scenes of maids, servants, and children). In an age dominated by Rococo excess and opulence, his works exalt the simple beauty of quotidian subjects. Additionally, he painted very slowly and turned out only 4 or 5 pieces a year. Chardin is one of Marcel Proust’s favorite artists and anyone who has read “Remembrance of Things Past” will recall long lyrical passages praising paintings such as “The Ray” (one of the Louvre’s prized masterpiece–which Proust saw often). Proust found a kindred spirit in Chardin—someone who found transcendent beauty, grandeur, and meaning within daily life. Chardin’s exquisite little works make a large aesthetic point about the nature of beauty and of truth—which are as often found in the servant’s little room as in the viscount’s vasty palace. A little hanging duck is as lovely as the goddess of the dawn.

A Green Neck Duck with a Seville Orange (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

A Green Neck Duck with a Seville Orange (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

I have chosen to show three paintings of fowl by Chardin (ranging from least, at the top, to best at the bottom). All are kitchen paintings of dead birds about to be plucked and cooked. The first is a simple brace of gamefowl hanging in the kitchen. The second work shows a splendid duck with one cream colored wing extended, the last is a magnificent turkey amidst copper pots and vegetables. Each of these paintings have a deep sense of longing: the melancholy of the dead birds is somewhat abated by the viewer’s hunger and by the wistful nostalgia created by a limited palette of grays and browns (with a few little flourishes of pink, orange, and yellow). Their very simplicity makes them rich and complex (although Chardin’s incomparable brushwork certainly is anything but simple).

 

Still Life with Suspended Turkey (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

Still Life with Suspended Turkey (Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, oil on canvas)

The nymphs, clowns, and jeweled mistresses of 18th century French art seem to come from a world unimaginable—a world which even today’s jaded pop stars and sybaritic billionaires would find decadent. Chardin’s art however comes from some eternal place—a kitchen which we have all walked into in childhood. There in the plain light we are confronted with humble pots and pans and perhaps a bird or fish—but we are also confronted with the absolute beauty of the everyday world.

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Here are four stirrup spout bottles in the shape of ducks from my favorite sculptors of Pre-Columbian South America, the Moche. The Moche lived in what is now northern Peru in a lose alliance of culturally affiliated tribes. Their civilization flourished between 100 AD and 800 AD. It is believed that the Moche worshipped dark and horrible monster gods and practiced extreme forms of human sacrifice. It is also believed that they kept cute ducks as pets!

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

The excellent workmanship and loving detail of these vessels tends to support the theory that the Moche were duck keepers. Look at the graceful composition, the harmonic colors, and the sheer personality expressed in the bird’s faces.

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche society was built around sophisticated irrigation methods and anthropologists speculate that their artwork expresses the central importance of fluids to their life. Aside from certain religious works which show terrible sea gods, most surviving Moche artifacts are water vessels. The filling/pouring nature of the works is central to understanding them. Some works depict sacrifice victims or dying warriors where the fluid gushes from the mouth or from wounds. Other Moche vessels depict fertility and life directly by portraying figures during intercourse or other erotic acts. The duck vessels however are unwounded, self-contained, and healthy. It seems the fearsome Moche really did care for their fowl…

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Moche Ceramic Duck Vessel (ca. 300 AD -500 AD)

Rubber Duck Kaohsiung (Florentijn Hofman, 2013 18 x 15 x 16 meters Inflatable, pontoon and generator)

Rubber Duck Kaohsiung (Florentijn Hofman, 2013
18 x 15 x 16 meters,  Inflatable, pontoon and generator)

I’m sorry to post two duck posts in a row, but events in the art world (and beyond) necessitate such a step.  On September 27th (2013), Pittsburgh , PA became the first U.S. city to host Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s giant floating rubber duck statue.  Actually the rubber duck now in Pittsburgh is only one of several giant ducks designed by Hofman for his worldwide show “Spreading Joy Around the World,” which launched in his native Amsterdam.  The largest of the ducks, which measured 26×20×32 metres (85×66×105 ft) and weighed over 600 kg (1,300 lb) was launched in Saint Nazaire in Western France.

Rubber Duck Kaohsiung (Florentijn Hofman,  2013 26 x 20 x 32 meters Inflatable, pontoon and generators)

Rubber Duck “Kaohsiung” (Florentijn Hofman, 2013
26 x 20 x 32 meters, Inflatable, pontoon and generators)

Hofman’s statues are meant to be fun and playful.  His website describes the purpose of the giant duck project simply, “The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn’t discriminate people and doesn’t have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them.”

Feestaardvarken (Florentijn Hofman, 2013, Metal, concrete and coating)

Feestaardvarken (Florentijn Hofman, 2013, Metal, concrete and coating)

A list of his sculptural projects reveals that he has the generous and delighted soul of a toymaker.  A few example are instructive:  he erected a large plywood statue of a discarded plush rabbit named “Sunbathing Hare” in St. Petersburg, a concrete “party aardvark” in Arnhem (Holland), 2 immense slugs made of discarded shopping bags in France (they are crawling up a hill towards a towering gothic church and their inevitable death), and many other playful animal theme pieces.

Slow Slugs (Florentijn Hofman, 2012, Metal, football nets, and 40.000 plastic bags)

Slow Slugs (Florentijn Hofman, 2012, Metal, football nets, and 40.000 plastic bags)

Not only do Hofman’s works address fundamental Ferrebeekeeper themes like mollusks, art, mammals, and waterfowl, his work hints at the global nature of trade, and human cultural taste in our times. With his industrially crafted giant sculptures and his emphasis on ports around the world, Hofman’s huge toys speak directly to humankind’s delight with inexpensive mass-market products.  The art also provokes a frisson of horror at the oppressive gigantism of even our most frivolous pursuits).

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A Male and Female Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)

A Male and Female Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) photo by Steve Berliner

Judging by its name alone, the wood duck (Aix sponsa) sounds a little bland but it is actually one of the most colorful little waterfowl of North America. The male wood duck in particular is covered with iridescent green and red feathers which are grouped apart by lovely white and black demarcation lines.  In addition, male wood ducks have bright red eyes, orange beaks, yellow feet and white bellies.  The female wood duck is colored more subtly but is also very beautiful, as explained in a quote from artist and conservationist Robert Bateman who states, “the subtlety and form of the females display a classic elegance which suggests the wild and vulnerable wooded wetlands of this world.”

A pair of wood ducks by Katey Brown

A pair of wood ducks by Katey Brown

Wood ducks measure 47 to 54 cm (19 to 21 in) in length.  They feed on acorns, seeds, and berries from the land and on aquatic invertebrates and water weeds when on water.  Not only are they omnivores, but they can swim, dive, run, and fly quite well.  Wood ducks are close relatives of the equally beautiful mandarin ducks (Aix galericulata) of East Asia—the two species must have shared a Northern ancestor which lived near the dividing lines between the great continents.

Wood Duck Range (http://bioweb.uwlax.edu)

Wood Duck Range (http://bioweb.uwlax.edu)

 

The wood duck’s plumage is so lovely and vibrant that the species went into dreadful decline in the late nineteenth century as a result of the millinery industry (which was converting all the male ducks into ladies’ hats). Fortunately, today people do not set such high esteem by fancy hats. Additionally, conservation efforts have been adding to the ducks’ habitat (as have beavers, which, when spreading back to traditional habitats, create ponds where the ducks live) and waterfowl enthusiasts have been building little duck houses to help the ducks breed and nest.  Careful stewardship of hunting permits has kept duck hunters as avid partners in duck restoration and the wood duck is slowly regaining its (webbed) foothold as a part of the wild and quasi-wild places in North America.

A lovely wood duck painting from a site dedicated to their conservation (http://www.dbcl.org/woodduck.htm)

A lovely wood duck painting from a site dedicated to their conservation (http://www.dbcl.org/woodduck.htm)

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)

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