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On Tuesday we wrote about the Red junglefowl, the wild ancestor of the domestic chicken. To progress further with this Stendhalian color theme, here is a human-made chicken, crafted by means of artificial selection over the centuries—the Ayam Cemani—the back chickens of Java. These amazing birds are all black. I mean they are really black…so exceedingly black they make Kerry James Marshall weep with aesthetic envy.
Not only do Ayam Cemani chickens have black feathers, black faces, black beaks, and black wattles, their very organs are black. Even their bones are as black as India ink. It would be downright disconcerting… if they didn’t wear it so stylishly.
The birds’ black color is a sort of reverse of albinism—the Ayam Cemani chickens have a surfeit of pigment. This is genetic condition is known as fibromelanosis. For generations and generations farmers have selected it until they have produced this rooster who looks like he stepped into the barnyard from the event horizon of a black hole.
Yet the Ayam Cemani is not completely black…they have red blood and they lay cream colored eggs (although they are unreliable sitters, so without fashionistas looking after the survival of the breed, they might vanish real fast). Speaking of which, why did the Javans collectively make such a crazy striking animal? The internet says that the chickens are used for ceremonial purposes and for meals, but it looks like an amazing work of intergenerational conceptual art to me. If you want you can get some for yourself, but unless you are headed to Java, they are rare and cost thousands of dollars in the United States (if you can find a seller). It looks like it might be money well spent though. These are stunning roosters. Let’s hope the year of the fire rooster is as stylish as they are (but maybe not quite so dark).
August is probably my favorite month! To start it out on a jaunty note, I wanted to find the most colorful pigeon out of all the many Columbidae. Now, as it turns out, there are a lot of beautiful tropical doves with tutti-fruity plumage, but one special candidate seemed like the clear winner. Allow me to present the rose-crowned fruit dove (Ptilinopus regina), a green dove with an orange belly, saffron eyes, a white-gray head and thorax, and a beautiful magenta crown (edged with yellow). Wow!
The rose-crowned fruit dove is a gentle fructivore which lives in lowland rainforests of northeast Australia, and various tropical islands of southern Indonesia. The female lays a single white egg in a nest hidden in the dense canopy and both parents look after it. Nestlings are solid green and do not develop the brilliant splashes of color until they reach adulthood.
Rose-crowned fruit dove (Ptilinopus regina) from arovingiwillgo.wordpress.com (photo by Joy)
I sort of hoped to tell some amazing anecdote about this lovely animal, but I could not find any. Apparently the bird’s brilliant plumage seamlessly blends into the vine and flower filled jungles where it lives. People rarely see it at all and are most familiar with the bird from its cries or from the noise it makes when it fumbles and drops a delicious fig. Just based on looks alone, though, it was still worth writing about!
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.
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.
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!”
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.
Yet another summer day has ineluctably slipped through my fingers. What with work, friends, art, and the great human endeavor there was no time to find out about crab-eating seals or exoplanets for today’s post. Fortunately I have my little book of fun sketches for such occasions (for those of you who just walked in, this is the small sketchbook I carry around and sketch in during downtime like the subway or lunch). Above is my favorite of the three selected sketches for today. I imagine it as being the dramatic climax of an unknown ballet where a tribe of sylphs confront the underworld demon-god and wage a tremendous dance battle with him on behalf of their upstanding moral principles (actually I think that might be an actual ballet). In the real world, the pink and blue and yellow all blend together more seamlessly, but I guess I am stuck with what my camera can manage under halogen light.
In the second picture a shipwreck at the bottom of the Indian Ocean is the scene for wayang theater, written edicts, and ghostly machinations. It seems like the picture might be about the Dutch East India Company or some other Indonesian colonial enterprise. At any rate, the great flesh colored sawfish who appeared from nowhere steals the scene from the human agencies (although the brain coral seems to also be in the know).
Finally I included a geometric doodle of a colorful cityscape. I sketched this on the train after a frustrating day of work. My colleague was out that day, so I spent the entire workday trying to answer two to six confusing phone calls every minute for hours on end. I was thoroughly frustrated with New York and cursing the entire beastly expensive overrated mess when I got on a train car which had a foul smelling beggar in it. Because of the smell, the train car was unusually empty at rush hour and I opted to remain on it so I could I could sit down and draw. I sketched away furiously as the car stopped underground and lingered forever in a tunnel beneath the East River. The beggar got off in Brooklyn Heights and I kept sketching, but I was still angry at everything. When I was almost home (which is near the end of the 2 line) the woman who had been silently riding next to me the whole time quietly said ‘you are a great artist” which really turned around the bad day. I am not sure the picture merits such a statement, but the comment made me feel great and stood as a powerful reminder of what a large effect small actions and statements can have. I hope that kindly stranger is reading my blog so I can thank her properly for her words. They meant a lot to me.
The day has completely slipped away from me (as is the way of Mondays in January) but–even though I haven’t written a proper blog post–I wanted to share some photos of an extremely fancy tropical tree python with you. The green tree python (Morelia viridis) is found in southern Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Cape York Peninsula of Australia, all of which sound far preferable to the cold gray pall of Brooklyn. The snake has a long slender body which measures from 1.5 to 1.8 meters (about 5 to 6 feet) and has a pronounced head with a heavy square nose/muzzle.
The species is arborial and is notable for coiling up into a saddle position when sleeping or resting. Green tree pythons feed mostly on tree-dwelling mammals (which they catch by hanging their necks and heads into an S-shape and imitating vines) and smaller reptiles which live up in the rainforest. As with the green vine snake, the sinuous almost abstract beauty of the green tree python always makes me think of lush tropical forests on far-away continents and its exquisite green/yellow/chartreuse color reminds me of the beauty of nature.
The most transparent known vertebrates are the Asian glass catfish of the genus Kryptopterus. The two most popular species are Kryptopterus minor, the ghost catfish, and Kryptopterus bicirrhis, commonly known as the glass catfish, which is a mainstay in the tropical aquarium.
Asian glass catfishes live in slow turbid streams throughout Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. They are schooling predators who feed on tiny arthropods, worms, and minnow fry. Camaraderie is important for the little fish—outside of a school, individuals rarely survive (even in an aquarium where all of their other needs are met and they lack predators). Their remarkable transparency serves as camouflage, hiding them from predator and prey alike. Growing to a maximum of four inches the catfish live for up to eight years.
Asian glass catfish are scaleless and lack pigment, however the cellular dynamics of their transparent tissues are still not fully understood. In living specimens, the animal’s skeleton is quite visible and its internal organs can be seen with a silver sack. A viewer with a powerful magnifying glass can watch the fish’s heartbeat and determine the contents of its stomach. When the catfish dies so does its transparency–after death they turn an opaque white.
The catfish is commercially important for the aquarium trade. It seems possible that exporters in South East Asia have devised a way to breed the fish en masse, but, if so, it is wholly unknown in the west. The Phantom Glass Catfish is also a major ingredient of some of the salty fish sauces used in Malaysian and Indonesian cooking.