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Earlier this week I wrote about the (alleged) crown of Montezuma.  The main element of that crown was not a gem or gold structural elements, but the exquisite iridescent emerald feathers of Pharomachrus mocinno, the resplendent quetzal.  These birds live in the rainforests of Central America from southern Mexico down across Guatemala and into western Panama.  They are solitary birds which generally eat fruit (which they supplement with small animals).  They are weak fliers and are preyed on by hawks, eagles, owls, and even toucanets and squirrels (it must be embarrassing to be eaten by a small mean toucan or a squirrel).

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Because of their exquisite feathers resplendent quetzals were associated with the flying snake god Quetzalcotl by various Mesoamerican civilizations.  Elite individuals of the Maya and the Aztecs did indeed wear headdresses made from quetzal feathers, and it was taboo to kill the bird.  Feathers were collected from captured birds which were set free (for quetzals do not flourish in captivity).  They were seen as symbols of divinity, freedom, and wealth (Guatemalan money is known as the quetzal).

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I wish I could tell you more about this jewel-like bird, but they quietly keep their secrets.  A myth of the conquest is that before Spaniards came to the Americas, quetzals sang beautifully and had plain breasts, but since that time their breasts have been red with blood and they have been silent.  They do indeed seem to be a stupendous visual phenomenon (like today’s post which is really about the pictures of this exquisite animal).

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To my delight, I discovered that, against all odds, the crown of the Aztec Empire is (apparently) still extant.  Allegedly, the Conquistadors hung onto Montezuma’s original feathered headdress and brought it back to Europe where it found its way into the hands of the Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family who put it in a scary museum somewhere in Vienna. However, as I tried to find out more about the crown of Montezuma, I ended up reading more about the Aztecs.  Now, I always regarded the Aztecs as a death-cult society built on top of a base of cruel slavery and vicious warfare.  The truth is more complicated.  The “empire” was really a grand alliance of three neighboring city-states from the Valley of Mexico. The Triple Alliance (as the Aztecs called themselves) conquered the surrounding tribes and kingdoms through war and political/cultural means, yet whenever this alliance took over a new region they left the nobility and social structures intact and “ruled” through extracting tribute and demanding other cultural concessions.  Their “flower wars” were not traditional wars of conquest familiar to say, the Romans or the French, but highly stylized affairs…however the (pre-ordained) losers were indeed sacrificed to appease the astonishing yet bloodthirsty gods of the Aztec pantheon.

We will come back to all of this later this week.  For right now, let’s get back to the crown of Montezuma II.  This beautiful item is remarkable in many ways, but, um, being “real” isn’t necessarily one of them (speaking of which, the original is pictured at the top of the post , and the other pictures are museum reproductions).  The provenance of this headdress (if it is a headdress) is highly disputed.  Not only does it not match the (questionable) illustrations we have of Aztec headdresses, but also the 16th century records about the piece have some holes .  According to lore the crown was seized during the conquest of Mexico (ca. 1520) and sent back to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.  The piece is then recorded in the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II in Ambras (near Innsbruck Austria) in 1575.  It became an object of fascination in the mid to late 19th century. Since it is made from delicate iridescent feathers (which fade over time) the crown was “restored” in 1878.  the European restorers used kingfisher feathers and restored it as a standard (a sort of flag as opposed to a “Moorish hat” (which is how it was recorded in the Grand Duke’s collection).

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The restored crown is over a meter in height and 1.75 meters across (4 feet by 6 feet).  it is crafted of layers of feathers, which seem to have conferred certain spiritual significance in the afterlife (and in the Aztec court, where special feather workers were kept to work with innumerable caged birds).  The layers of feathers are described in detail on Wikipedia:

“The smallest is made from blue feathers of the Cotinga amabilis (xiuhtōtōtl) with small plates of gold in the shapes of half moons. Behind this is a layer of Roseate spoonbill (tlāuhquechōlli) feathers, then small quetzal feathers, then a layer of white-tipped red-brown feathers of the squirrel cuckoo, Piaya cayana, with three bands of small gold plates, and finally two of 400 closely spaced quetzal tail feathers, some 55 cm (22 in) long.”

To conclude, I have written about a emperor’s crown which is not necessarily a crown for an empire which was not necessarily an empire.   Everything in this post is suspect. Our fundamental view of the Aztecs (who didn’t even call themselves that) seems as questionable as this imperial crown.  Yet, despite these very real questions, the crown of Montezuma today has become the focus of an intense political campaign to return the piece to Mexico.  Austria and Mexico exchange diplomatic statements about it and teams of scientists and ethnologists study the fragile treasure. Whether it actually belonged to Montezuma or not, the piece definitely seems to be an Aztec artifact of enormous significance and equally great beauty.   It is as splendid–or perhaps more splendid– as any of the other crowns I have written about, yet it is sad too, with its bloody history, its ongoing mysteries, and the contemporary conflict which swirls around it. The fact that it is made of fragile feathers of  long gone birds gives it additional beauty and pathos.

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Imagine a relaxing pine forest with a soft carpet of orange needles and gentle green boughs waving in the breeze. Wood ears grow on fallen logs, and little insects scurry around the ferns and the air is filled with the slightly spicy smell of pines. There are whistles, songs, and clicking squeaks–not unlike the chatter of squirrels and the familiar melodies of passerine birds, but when a chipmunk darts by, you realize that it is no chipmunk at all but a weird miniature running pheasant. Then a further shock comes when you see the miniature pheasant has teeth and claws—it is a tiny dinosaur!  You are in a Cretaceous pine wood, and though, there may be primitive birds somewhere, the rustling all around you and the darting russet forms running through the undergrowth are little dinosaurs. Is that crashing noise coming towards you a larger predator?

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Paleontology lets us travel to the past and reconstruct such scenes with increasing accuracy.  As we gain further fossil evidence and our grasp of zoology, biology, and genetics deepens, we can see further into this vanished world.  However, sometimes a literal piece of the past falls directly into our hands.

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Look at this incredible piece of amber obtained in a market in China!  In addition to beautiful yellow-orange amber and glistening air bubbles, there is a gorgeously preserved ant, some bits of bark & plant matter, and…some sort of weird feathered tail!  This is not a recent piece of amber, either, it comes from an amber mine in northern Myanmar, but it really comes from a pine forest 99 million years ago in the Cretaceous: the world I described above.

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The tail seemed like the tail of a small bird, but CT scans revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long narrow tail which was not fused into a bird’s pygostyle (an anatomical feature which allows birds to move their tail feathers as a single unit like a fan).  Scientists realized that the amber contains the feathers, skin, and soft tissue of a dinosaur—a juvenile coelurosaur—about the size of a sparrow.

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If one of these things got into the office and the office manager had to remove it, I suspect people would say there was a bird in the copy room.  Yet it was definitely a dinosaur. The best preserved fossils of this sort of ecosystem come from East Asia—China, Mongolia, and Myanmar. Look at the hints of Chinese ink drawing which have found their way into the paleontological drawing of a coelurosaur below.

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As scientists unravel the secrets trapped in the amber, we will be learning a lot more about this particular dinosaur, but other wonders may lie ahead.  Myanmar is emerging from isolation, civil wars, and turmoil to rejoin the community of nations.  What else lies buried in that mine or others like it?

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Today’s post is about archangels!  Glistening in the sky above us they are the most…wait…archangels the pigeon breed??? Who is choosing these topics? Sigh…ok. Well, in addition to being quasi-divine winged warriors of insane ferocity second in might only to godhead, archangels are also apparently a breed of fancy pigeon.  Germans call them “gimpels” which strikes me as a less dramatic but somehow more appropriate name.

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Like other domesticated pigeons, archangels are descended from the rock pigeon (Columba livia).  The archangel is a small pigeon with featherless legs.  Its claim to distinction is an extremely iridescent head which glistens like burnished metal!  Why does nobody ever say stuff like that about me? In England, “archangel” refers only to black and copper color birds, but here in America we have thrown off such tyrannically narrow definitions and archangels can be any color (and they can have crests or not).

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archangel pigeon (from http://loftone.net/archangels/)

Clearly we are having a bit of fun at the expense of pigeon breeders and the grandiloquent names they give their feathered darlings, but these birds really are cool.  Look at those metallic heads!

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The Green Junglefowl (Gallus varius) photo by NaturePixels.org and BESG

The Green Junglefowl (Gallus varius) photo by NaturePixels.org and BESG

There are four living species of the genus Gallus.  The most familiar (by a ridiculously vast margin) is Gallus gallus—the red junglefowl, aka the chicken! Yet there are some other sorts of junglefowl still out there living in the primordial jungle.  My favorite (for purely aesthetic reasons) is the green junglefowl (Gallus varius), also known as the Javan junglefowl, the forktail or the green Javanese junglefowl.  Like the red junglefowl, the green junglefowl lives in tropical and semitropical forests and scrubland.  It is an omnivore, living largely on seeds, grain, and fruits which it supplements with whatever insects, arthropods, lizards, snakes, and tiny rodents it can catch.

Male Green Junglefowl (Photo by Jeff Whitlock of "The Online Zoo" www.theonlinezoo.com)

Male Green Junglefowl (Photo by Jeff Whitlock of “The Online Zoo” http://www.theonlinezoo.com)

The green junglefowl lives in Indonesia on the islands of Java, Bali, Lombok, Komodo, Flores, and Rinca (and on some smaller islands near to these large landmasses).   The birds live in small flocks of two to five.  Usually a single male lives with a few females which he protects with his sharp spurs and fast beak (although these are poor protection against Komodo dragons and tigers…to say nothing of Indonesian humans).  At day the junglefowl forage through the forests.  At night they roost about 15 feet up in small trees or bamboo.  They are slightly better at flying then the red junglefown of South Asia.  Males fight (sometimes to the death) over hens.

(photo via the featured creature)

(photo via the featured creature)

At first the common name would seem to be a misnomer.  The male junglefowl does not look green, but rather black with orange wings, gold highlights, and a dazzling superman-colored head of bright red, yellow and blue(!).  Yet close up, it becomes apparent that, like the ocellated turkey and the Cayuga duck, the green junglefowl has iridescent feathers which are many colors in different light—but mainly dark glistening green.   Aviary owners and exotic bird enthusiasts are quite familiar with the green junglefowl because of its dazzling appearance and its unique mating call “Cock-a-blargle-ack!”

Male and female green junglefowl (Gallus varius)

Male and female green junglefowl (Gallus varius)

These birds of the Indonesian jungle are shockingly beautiful and yet also oddly reptilian and alien. The undomesticated chickens are a reminder of just how strange our familiar farm animals really are. Although, in some ways the green junglefowl are swiftly becoming green chickens.  They keep interbreeding with domestic chickens to form a peculiar hybrid—the bekisar.

 

White Crested Black Polish Rooster

White Crested Black Polish Rooster

Allow me to present a truly magnificent breed of show chickens! Polish chickens are known for their plumage—especially their splendid bouffant crests.  Despite the name, Polish chickens were apparently bred in the Netherlands (although there are some apocryphal stories about how they first arrived in Europe with Mongol raiders!).  Some historians speculate that they are known as Polish chickens because their feathery crest resembles the flared hat of the Polish lancers, but the real reasons for the name are lost in time.

A Polish Lancer of the Imperial Guard (re-enactor)

A Polish Lancer of the Imperial Guard (re-enactor)

Bantam Frizzle Polish

Bantam Frizzle Polish

Bearded White Polish Hen (from Cackle Hatchery)

Bearded White Polish Hen (from Cackle Hatchery)

Like many of the truly chic, Polish chickens suffer for their beauty: their feathery crests impede their vision—which often makes them skittish and flighty. They have good reason to be anxious: because of their reduced eyesight, they are easy prey for foxes and other predators (and, if kept with other doughtier breeds of chickens, they fall low on the pecking order).

Tolbunt (Beard) Polish Hen

Tolbunt (Beard) Polish Hen

Golden Laced Polish Chicken

Golden Laced Polish Chicken

 

Silver Laced Polish Rooster

Silver Laced Polish Rooster

Polish chickens are mild-mannered and can make good pets (if you happen to want a pet chicken). Additionally they can be decent egg-layers–though nothing like modern egg-laying breeds like the leghorns.  As you can see from the images included in this post, there are many different colors and varieties of polish chickens to suit your palette and your ornamental tastes!

Buff Laced Frizzle Polish Hen

Buff Laced Frizzle Polish Hen

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)

As mentioned previously, I am a toymaker who crafts the Zoomorphs mix-and-match animal toys (you can check them out here).  I always try to make the characters whimsical but with a strong basis in reality–which means color is one of the hardest things to figure out.  If the animals’ colors are too realistic and drab, children (and other toy aficionados) will not gravitate towards the toys, but if the colors are too bright the animals become surreal.

Zoomorphs Jurassicmorphs! (*cough* available at finer toy stores)

Fortunately I have always been helped out by our magnificent extinct friends, the dinosaurs.  Paleontologists have ideas about what color dinosaurs were (based on the coloration of living reptiles and birds), but the scientists still haven’t found any conclusive answers—which means I can paint my dinosaur characters with all of the gaudy 80s colors I can find in the Pantone book!

Microraptor Fossil with plumage--found in rural China (AP Photo/Mick Ellison, American Museum of Natural History, Science /AAAS) Photo: Mick Ellison, American Museum Of Natural History, Science/AAAS / AP)

Or at least that was true until now.  On Thursday, the scientific journal, um, Science reported that an international team of Chinese and American scientists have discovered the color of microraptor, a small feathered dinosaur about the size of a crow which lived 130 million years ago.  By studying the patterns of pigment-containing cell fragments known as melanosomes which were present in an exceptional microraptor fossil, the scientists determined that the ancient animal was black with an iridescent shimmer—a common pattern for many of today’s birds.  Microraptor apparently also had two long streamer feathers on its tail.  The little dinosaur likely used its iridescence and ornate tail feathers for social signaling with other microraptors over important concerns like territory and mating.

Artist's conception of Microraptor (Photo: Mick Ellison, American Museum Of Natural History, Science /AAAS / AP)

Many of the articles I have read about the microraptor’s coloration have playfully noted that the small predator hews to the fashion adage of wearing basic black with accents.  The articles also compare the tiny dinosaur (which had two pairs of wings—on both its legs and arms) to crows, grackles, starlings and the like.  However it is important to remember that microraptor was not yet a bird—it had sharp claws on nimble little hands and a mouthful of cruel teeth (so the fashion metaphor may be even more appropriate than the bird analogy).

A grackle shows off the same colors worn by microraptor 130 million years ago.

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