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Today we feature an obscure color which used to be well known and frequently written about.  Isabelline, also known as “isabella,” is a pale, silvery yellowish-gray.  The name for the color is older than most color names in English and dates back to the Elizabethan era (circa 1600).  There are several compelling (but non-definitive) explanations of the etymology of the word.  My favorite explanation is that Infanta Isabella, a Spanish noblewoman vowed never to change her snow white garb until her husband,  Archduke Albert of Austria, was victorious in conquering Ostend, a Protestant stronghold in Flanders.  A hasty victory was expected, however, the city’s Dutch defenders were reinforced and supplied from the sea by the English and the siege lasted for three brutal years, by which time the Infanta’s gown was a very organic yellow-gray.  The story is probably apocryphal but it is nearly old as the color itself (and it draws our attention to the Siege of Ostend, which was as brutal and bloody as it was historically interesting).

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This Spanish connection of the name hints at why the English of the early 17th century were so excited by yellow-gray to begin with.  Isabella is a color of horses, an unparalleled fascination for people of that time! In modern horse terms, such steeds are pale palomino or cremello, but the hue isn’t too far off from ancestral grullo (these horse color names all seem to have a late medieval Spanish flair don’t they?).  At any rate, even though isabella is a common color for living things, it is perhaps not of not of paramount beauty to the jaded modern eye and the word has been gradually fading from usage.  This strikes me as a pity, since it is a much better word for that organic yellow-gray than uh, “yellow-gray.”

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Ok, I’ll admit it, maybe I still have some “panda-monium” in my system from Tuesday’s announcement about the 2022 Olympic mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen, an adorable panda wearing some sort of ice hauberk.  To follow up on that post, here is a picture of a baby panda in China which was just born with white and gray fur.  What’s the story here?

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Now everyone knows that pandas are black and white (except for the red panda, which is really a whole different sort of animal), however it turns out there are a couple of mysterious off-color giant panda clans out there in the bamboo forests. Apparently a family from Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding sometimes has gray and white cubs.  Pandas from the so-called Gray family look wise beyond their years at first but then turn to normal white and black as they grow into adulthood.  Here is Chengshi, another gray-and-white cub born a few years ago who matured into a lovely black-and -white goofball.

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However, the Gray family of color-changing gray pandas is not the most dramatic clan of differently colored giant pandas.

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This is Qi Zai, the world’s only captive brown and white panda.  Qi Zai is from the distant Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi, where a subspecies of brown and white pandas appropriately known as Qinling pandas are known to reside.  Qinling pandas are rarely spotted in the forest fastnesses of their remote home.  The pandas are reputedly somewhat smaller (and more sensitive) than their black-and-white relatives.  Zoologists are still arguing about how to classify the brown and white pandas (are they a true sub-species, or just an unusual family), but it seems like they are certainly the rarest of the rare.  It is is estimated that only 200-300 exist in the whole world.

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Today we’re blatantly ripping off some work from one of the Economist’s throw-away graphs.  Here is a somewhat peculiar little chart which shows the correlation between the color of new cars sold and the national mood of Great Britain.  The teal line correlates with the number of voters who are most concerned about the economy while the sea blue line correlates with voters who are most worried about Britain’s relationship with the EU (and/or the “Brexit”).  The real takeaway would seem to be that car color veers back to conservative black when people are anxious or worried about anything.

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I wonder though how the car-color graph would look against a long term graph.  I saw another chart (lost to time and circumstance) which charted the top-selling car color in the United States by decade.  In the seventies people bought brown/orange carr.  In the 80s they bought blue cars.  In the 90s the top color was green, and in the ‘aughts it was silver or white.  Probably in the ghastly teens the top color here has been black too.  I don’t know if this data is true, since I don’t have a methodology (or even a chart).  But it stacks up well against my parents car buying habits: they had a maroon station wagon in the seventies, a navy Jetta in the 80s, a teal pontiac in the nineties, a bronze Subaru in the aughts, and a black volt for the teens (although let’s not talk about the trucks–which were pea-soup, goblin’s gold, almond, dark red, sage green, navy, and deep brown).

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Here in New York, I have noticed that when the market is roaring, men’s dress shirts are pretty colors like french blue, lavender, and salmon, but when the market tanks they become gray, white, and pale blue (this may have stopped being a useful index when men stopped wearing dress shirts–polo shirts tell us nothing).  the larger point is that I suspect a meta-analysis of color would tell us all sorts of things about other indices and statistics…but i wonder whether the color choices come from consumers or if they come from marketers and advertisers who decide that everyone will want black or silver and create inventory accordingly.

 

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Once again, Ferrebeekeeper heads off to the mysterious micro-continent of Madagascar.  This time we are not looking for flags or lemurs, but instead for a newly discovered snake, Madagoscarophis lolo, AKA “the Madagascar ghost snake.”  The ghost snake was discovered this year by an international team of researchers from the American Museum of Natural History, the Université de Mahajunga, and LSU. The gray snake with dark gray stipples was discovered at the limestone Tsingy rocks of Ankarana Reserve.  This instantly explains why the species was hitherto undiscovered: this snake looks like it would be invisible on the polished wooden floor of a brightly lit library–much less in an impassible wasteland of giant limestone spikes the exact same color that it is.  The ghost snake is a species of cat-eyed snakes, little predators with vertical pupils which are active at twilight and at night.  The ghost snake seems to be crepuscular…but so far we don’t know too much about it other than that…

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Ahh mascots…It has been too long since we peaked into the strange representational world of symbolic characters.  A mascot is meant to bring good luck…and what could be luckier than a pigeon (which, after all, live virtually everywhere and tend to be in robust health).  When it comes to living in a city, no mascot (except maybe the rat or Joan Rivers) could be more appropriate.  Therefore here is a little gallery of pigeon mascots.  Sadly Samsung has not mastered iridescent monitor technology so you will have to use your imagination to add the glossy feathers and cooing.

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This one is by Jamie Sale, who will design a mascot for you if you find him on the internet and properly incentivize him (look the pigeon is drawing mascots!)

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I don’t know if it counts, but here is a stunning Louis Lejeune Hood Ornament.

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Some of these guys look a little bit like they came from a really dirty episode of “Family Guy”or maybe escaped from mascot jail… but urban birds are a bit gritty so perhaps that is as it should be.  At least they gloriously encapsulate pigeon pride

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or not…

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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If you are like me, you yearn for the color-changing abilities of an octopus or a flamboyant cuttlefish. It’s going to be a long time before we have such capabilities ourselves, but surely technology can let us change the color of our surroundings and effects without repainting them. For a while now, the great laboratories and technology gurus have been promising us color-changing paint–where you walk into a room and turn a dial to change the wall color from green to pink to yellow to blue. I had a friend who shot some ads for GE who swore that this technology was about to hit markets (although since those ads were ten years ago, I am starting to have my doubts).

The Mood Ring!

The Mood Ring!

What we do have is color changing chemicals which alter their tone based on temperature or light. The compounds that change color based on temperature were used for “mood-rings” back in my parents’ day.  Then by the time I was a kid in the 80’s we had light-sensitive polymers.

Zartan, the ultra-mercenary

Zartan, the ultra-mercenary

There was a GI Joe toy–Zartan the super mercenary–which was featured in a series of jaw-dropping animated commercials. In the ads, Zartan was a color-changing mercenary with super-ninja skills–a formidable chameleon of death! However the actual doll looked more like a middle-aged professional wrestler heading off to KISS night at Fire Island. Also Zartan did not change color very rapidly. One of my friends had the figurine and it engendered lots of dubious phrases like “look his arm is already turning a little bit gray….I’m sure of it.” Zartan’s legacy was not dissimilar from that of “The Diving Dolphin” a way to teach kids that ads do not necessarily reflect reality.

Anyway, all of this is to introduce the fact that I won a minor bet with my roommate! In a fog of victory, I jokingly asked for a jet (assuming that this was a way to permanently dismiss the subject) but she went online and bought me a super-awesome color-changing toy plane! It has been sitting next to me at the office as the seasons change and the Heating/Air-Conditioning goes haywire in various colleague-enraging ways. Here, therefore are actual photos of this astonishing color changing jet still in its original packaging.

Neutral Jet

Neutral Jet

The jet’s ambient color at neutral office temperatures is bright mauve. When the pilot flies his craft into the cold temperature of the upper atmosphere (or alternately, into the freezer next to the frozen peas) the plane turns dark puce and then dark brown!

Cold Jet

Cold Jet

Flying out of the freezer, this experimental craft next landed on the sweltering environs atop of a huge mug of hot coffee. Soon the brown faded back to purple and then to blotchy magenta, and finally to pure US Air Force gray.

Hot Jet!

Hot Jet!

Mattel really outdid itself–this is a great toy! Zartan would be green with envy…eventually…well, maybe a little bit by his elbow? Let’s hope GE gets its act together so we can change our walls from bright magenta to gray to chocolate brown. That will be a future worth having!

Argh! SQUIRRELS!

Squirrel damage...

Squirrel damage…

Since December, the garden has been a desolate wasteland. Great sheets of scabrous ice and unwholesome snow have covered everything. Above the frozen crust, only the holly and the yew showed any life. Finally, here in mid-March, Brooklyn has started to come alive again. Little green shoots appeared—crocuses and the tender tips of tulips—only to be ripped off and thrown down by marauding squirrels. How I detest these hardy arboreal rodents!

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I hate the squirrels so much! But I like them and admire them too. The ones in the back yard are eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). Their taxonomical name means “shadow tail” for they have distinctive furry tails which look gray at a distance but are actually many subtle woodland colors. If the squirrels don’t want to be seen, they can wrap themselves in their tails and vanish like chameleons—but usually they wish to be observed as they brazenly saunter around the garden committing enormities. Brooklyn needs some more hawks to thin their ranks a bit.

Speaking of thinning, I guess I could feed the squirrels. They are understandably hungry as they use up their final winter resources and start families. It would mean that I spent a bunch of money on seeds, but maybe the distracted squirrels would stop tearing up my spring flowers. Yet, if I do that, the squirrel population will burgeon. These accursed squirrels gnawed a hole in the side of the house and began living in the crawl-space above the bathroom, so doing anything which creates more of them is fraught with peril. Last year, the landlady sent trappers to capture the squirrels in the house (the battle of wits between the squirrels and the wacky band of Trinidadian misfits she found was really something).

What is he eating? Is that insulation foam?

What is he eating? Is that insulation foam?

Gray squirrels are not unlike the tree-dwelling rodent-type creatures from which primates evolved (a group of extinct animals which I need to write about at some point).  Although they seem frenetic and crazed, the squirrels are actually surprisingly clever. There is an intense methodology to how they bury things for winter (indeed, they are saving—something I certainly don’t have the discipline to do). Their loquaciously chatter and chirps are clearly a complex system of communication. Maybe I shouldn’t begrudge them some ruined crocuses and tulips, but, as I write this, I notice that it’s snowing again. Those prospective flowers were all that was giving me hope for spring…and now even those jaunty little bud tips are gone.

Pilgrim Geese

Pilgrim Geese!

I’m sorry for the lack of posts for the last week: I was out of the city on a family visit in the bosky hills Appalachia. It was wonderful to get out of the city and spend some time on the farm recharging my mental and emotional batteries! One of the highlights of the trip was interacting with my parents’ flock of pilgrim geese–a heritage breed of medium sized geese noted for their mild manners and gender-selected colors: pilgrim ganders are white (with maybe a few dark tail feathers) whereas the female geese are medium gray with white bellies.

Argh! Back up a little bit...

Argh! Back up a little bit…

Pilgrim geese obtained their name because they allegedly came to America with the protestant refugees who founded New England—the pilgrims–but that dramatic historically interesting story may be an invention. The Live Stock Conservancy describes the various possible origins of the breed on its website:

[A poultry researcher] found numerous references to auto-sexing geese in colonial America, western England and Normandy, France, but the breed was never referred to by a name. According to some authorities, the Pilgrim goose is related to the now rare West of England goose, another auto-sexing breed, which could possibly have arrived with early colonists…But Oscar Grow, a leading authority on waterfowl in the 1900s, claims to have developed the breed in Iowa, and that his wife named them in memory of their relocation – or pilgrimage – to Missouri during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Authorities agree that the breed was first documented by the name “Pilgrim” in 1935, corresponding with the Grow family’s pilgrimage. The Pilgrim was admitted into the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection in 1939.

Pilgrim geese are able to fly short distances and they have a long lifespan (of up to 40 years—not that such an age is particularly old for humans!). They are friendly birds and intelligence shines in their round gray eyes. Goose society is very lively with lots of political squabbling and jockeying for prime mates and nesting sites. Like other domestic geese they largely subsist on grass and green shoots which they avidly graze with their serrated beaks, but they are hungry, hungry birds and they love special treats. In order to socialize her goose flock, my mother gives the birds some corn and mash in the morning and in the evening. The geese all crowd around the galvanized bin where their food is kept and inquisitively nibble on the pockets of the goose tenders. If the food does not appear rapidly enough they will point their beaks upward toward their human keepers and open them wide hoping perhaps that we might funnel grain directly down their gullet. They are extremely hilarious standing around with their bills open like big feathery ridiculous Venus flytraps!

The author with pilgrim goslings (who needed to be gathered up and put in a shed to protect them from predators)

The author with pilgrim goslings (who needed to be gathered up and put in a shed to protect them from predators)

Grey Dun Icelandic Horse (Paula Jantunen)

Grey Dun Icelandic Horse (Paula Jantunen)

Because of humankind’s long close association with horses, horse coloration has a very specific and complex vocabulary (as any fan of wild west literature could attest).  One of the most interesting horse colors is grullo a dun color characterized by gray body hair.  Grullo gray can be either tan gray or mouse colored.

A grullo horse

A grullo horse

Grullo horses have bodies which are lighter in hue than their tails and manes.  They also often have primitive markings such as stripes, spots, and stipples.  Some grullo horses even have striped legs as though they were zebras or quaggas.

Cave painting of a grullo wild horse from Lascaux, France (ca 15,000-10,000 BC)

Cave painting of a grullo wild horse from Lascaux, France (ca 15,000-10,000 BC)

Grullo is of interest as an ancestral coloration of wild horses.  The tarpan (Equus ferus ferus), an extinct subspecies of wild horse from Eurasia was believed to have grullo coloring. The last tarpan died in captivity in Russia in 1909, but mad attempts to recreate it through selective breeding have resulted in the primitive looking Heck horse (a breed of horse which tend to be grullo).  Additionally many small harry northern horses like Norwegian Fjord horses and Welsh ponies tend to be grullo.  Look at how cute they are!

A Heck Horse

A Heck Horse

 

 

 

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