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I still can’t get over fancy pigeons. Not because of what their outlandish appearance reveals about selective breeding or about pigeons, but because of what it reveals about us humans. People purposely select some pigeon feature and then spend decades (or whole human lifetimes) emphasizing it to the point of absurdity in generation after generation after generation of bird.

We have already looked at shortface pigeons and black Indian fantail pigeons, but I think today’s fancy pigeon might be even more remarkable. The Jacobin pigeon is an Indian breed of pigeon noted for huge feathery collars which nearly obscure the birds’ faces.

I initially thought that I was misspelling the name of these birds and they were “Jacobean” pigeons (like the huge stiff lacy collar which was in fashion in Jacobean England), but that is completely wrong. These are truly Jacobin pigeons–not because they want to tear down kingship and guillotine a bunch of feckless aristocrats, but instead because they are named after the Jacobin order of monks (which must have had very noteworthy collars and cowls).

Just look at the poor birds! They really look like haughy 5th avenue matrons!

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The arid scrubland of north and central Australia is an uncompromising environment of rocky hills, dry creekbeds, arid plateaus, desert mountains, scree, and a landscape which Australians call “gibber plains” (which, as far as I can tell, seems to be a desert of cobblestones or small sharp boulders).  Plants need to be tough to survive in this harsh country and the spinifex grasses fit the bill.  These course sharp grasses form stout tussocks which can survive with minimal water in a land where droughts can last for years.

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But this is not a post about desert grass or dry cobblestones; it is about an amazing bird which is capable of living a gregarious sedentary lifestyle in this vast dry landscape.  Spinifex pigeons (Geophaps plumifera) are a species of bronzewing pigeon which live in the baking grasslands of the island continent.  They are handsome and endearing pigeons with yellowish barred feathers, a white belly, and red cateye glasses.  Perhaps their most pronounced feature is a a magnificent elongated crest which looks not unlike the bleached khaki grasses which provide their home and sustenance.

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The spinifex pigeon lives throughout most of northern and central Australia where it survives by foraging for seeds of drought-resistant grasses and suchlike scrub and by eating any tiny invertebrates it is lucky enough to find.  The birds are social, and live in flocks from four to a couple of dozen (although much larger flocks have occasionally been spotted).

I don’t really have a lot of further information about the spinifex pigeon, but it is a worthwhile addition to my pigeon gallery, because of its handsome appearance, and because it is so thoroughly a resident of the scrubland.  Just comparing the spinifex pigeon with the Nicobar pigeon of tropical islands of the Andaman Sea, or the bleeding heart pigeon of the Philippine rainforest is to instantly see how climate and habitat sculpt creatures into appropriate shapes and colors.

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Today’s post about pigeons is a real eye popper! This is the Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon, a breed of fancy pigeon renowned for having huge bubble eyes. Just look at those colossal peepers! To quote the language of fancy pigeon-keeping, “…the beak, while being short and thick, is straight set.  The large eyes are pearl in color with thick almost frog-like ceres.”  That hardly seems to do justice to eyes which seem like they could belong to a peregrine falcon or a colossal squid!

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Darwin famously conceived part of his theory of evolution from observing the shortest & newest branches of the phylogenetic tree limb of Galapagos finches: however the other part of his theory came from his own English country hobby of breeding fancy pigeons.  Using artificial selection to create hugely exaggerated features (like absurd google eyes and a minuscule beak) helped him understand that a similar dynamic was at work in his pigeon cote and on the newly separated Galapagos islands.

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Of course this doesn’t explain the eyes of these particular pigeons. The Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon did indeed originate in Budapest in the first decade of the twentieth century.  The birds were bred by the Poltl brothers, a family of pigeon racing enthusiasts who wanted a high flying bird with incredible endurance.  I guess the tiny beak must save weight, and the big eyes allow for higher flying?  Can any pigeon racers back this up?  Whatever the mechanism, the Poltl brothers succeeded: the original Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeons were able to stay in the air longer than other breeds and they flew at a greater height.  Unfortunately this also meant that more of them were lost (both to nervous disposition and to the perils of the open sky).

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Anyway, today these pigeons are more famous as charismatic pets than as racers.  They reputedly have a very affectionate and alert temperament (with perhaps a trace of their original nervous disposition).  I am not sure I have the patient temperament necessary to push against the bounds of nature as a fancy pigeon breeder, but I am glad that someone is doing so just so we have the Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon to look at!

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Pigeon on a Peach Branch(桃鳩圖,桃鳩図 [ja]), (Emperor Huizong) ink and color on silk hanging

This rather beautiful pigeon on a peach branch is a superb and ancient example of the bird-flower painting which has been such a mainstay of Chinese art.  The small ink and color painting is on a piece of silk mounted on a hanging scroll.  The artist completed the work during the Northern Song dynasty around the turn of the 12th century BC.  Each of these bird-flower paintings is meant to impart a sort of allegorical moral lesson, although I confess that I cannot understand what is meant by the lovely colorful (and plumply self-satisfied) pigeon seated next to the one opened peach blossom as winter turns haltingly to spring.

But who cares if the moral lesson of the work is too subtle for us? Not only is it a lovely painting with all the strength of Song dynasty art, the painter was remarkable in his own right.   Zhao Ji was born into the greatest luxury imaginable and spent the first half of his life becoming one of China’s greatest literati painters.  Unfortunately, his brother, Emperor Zhezong, the 7th emperor of the Song Dynasty, died without a son, and Zhao Ji was forced to take on the quotidian responsibilities of running China in a addition to his cultural and calligraphic practice (and working on his exquisite paintings). Zhao Ji ascended to the throne in 1100 as Emperor Huizong of Song, and although he is fondly remembered as one of China’s greatest painters, he was also one of China’s worst emperors.  After abdicating in favor of his son, he was captured by Jurchens in 1126 and became a sad pawn of the duplicitous Jin Empire (a foreign “counter empire” based in the north which opposed the Song and set up the conditions for the Mongol conquest of a broken China.

The lesson here could that having a person who should be doing something else run your enormous empire is a big mistake…or maybe that dividing your country into two battling states sets a nation up for disaster, however I choose to read Emperor Huizong’s story as an artist’s tale of great success at bird flower painting.

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I Can See You (Christian DeFillipo, 2019) Flashe on Canvas

Here are a couple of lovely pigeon-themed paintings by my friend, Christian DeFillipo, a Queens-based artist who studied at Rhode Island School of Design.  Christian’s intimately sized paintings are made with flashe, a vinyl-based paint which dries in homogeneous opaque layers.  The effect combines the best aspects of screen printing, paper cutting, and acrylic painting.  Christian’s works all seem to exist in a world of warm summer colors and ingenuous happiness.  The flattened forms and decorative foliage makes one imagine of a more innocent Matisse. Although Christian’s work does not always have the pastoral simplicity and winsomeness of these two particular canvases (some of his other works delve into Indonesian and marine motifs, for example), they are usually comparably carefree in tone and delightful in warm vibrant color.

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Both these paintings focus on pigeons, which are emblematic of freedom and happiness. The painting at top is titled “I Can See You” and the courting icterine doves put me strongly in mind of the doves in Boucher or even in Roman artworks (for doves were sacred to Venus).  I stupidly failed to write down the title of the second work, but the single white dove flying away from the painting, likewise gives the impression of a divine visitation–but not for scary eschatological purposes–just a pleasure visit.  Christian’s works are likewise a beatific miniature vacation–a daytrip to a park in summer where it feels like the doves and the trees are secretly smiling with us.  You should check them out at his online gallery (and thanks, Christian, for letting me use the images).

 

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For many years I studied at the Art Students League of New York, a storied yet inexpensive atelier-style art school/collective which accounts about half to ¾ of all eminent American artists as members, pupils, or instructors at one point or another.  I would work all day as a stupid flunky at a bank and then go to the League and paint for three and a half hours every night.  At the Art Students League, one could find every sort of artist from around the world, from international art superstars to first time hobbyists. I mostly studied with the great portrait painter Ron Scherr who drew young luminaries of contemporary realism to him like a man casting loafs of bread in Union Square park draws pigeons.  There were many gifted Scherr students whose works and careers I need to highlight, but arguably the most gifted draftsperson was my friend Mark Kevin Gonzales, a chess player who grew up in Brooklyn (the rest of us just moved here to make it in the arts) and went to the famous Brooklyn Technical high School.

Since Mark is a native New Yorker, his artwork highlights life in the city, and these particular artworks highlight the animal life of the city, our famous rock pigeons (Columba livia) which throng the city’s parks and statues.  Indeed they are famous urbanites around the world.  The watercolor painting at the top highlights Mark’s mastery of  form shading and color.  The pigeon has been rendered in swift staccato strokes of watercolor (a famously unforgiving media) yet because of his masterful brushwork, the piece has an illusion of three dimensional form and conveys the impression of details which aren’t actually there.  A master’s secret is that if you can get the first few lines exactly right, you don’t have to agonize over a bunch of fussy little lines (but…oh let’s not talk about the years and years of practice necessary to get those big flat shapes to come out exactly right with the flick of a wrist).   The pigeons feathers seem to glisten with shimmering iridescence which is upon close inspection revealed to be a simple wash of viridian.  Its lively eye and cocked head makes the viewer think that the bird is observing the observer from beyond this little square of paper.  I suspect the bird really was observing Mark closely in whatever park he painted this (the poor pigeon probably though he was being sized up by a big weird cat as Mark crouched at his traveling easel).

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The second painting is even more of a quick sketch…but it is also more of a celebration (and a political piece).  This pigeon is strutting his stuff as joyous 4th of July fireworks go off in the background.  Notice how the pyrotechnics have colored the urban bird red white and blue.  Rock Pigeons are not originally from the new world (neither are Mark’s black and Philippine ancestors, come to think of it) but they have moved here to New York and lived here successfully for generations and they have a greater claim to being native New Yorkers than just about anybody.  It is good to see the patriotic national colors fitted out for an existence which is completely urbanized and it is so good to see some of Mark’s playful small works (he usually works in exquisitely rendered large format portrait painting).  You should check out his amazing work in Drawing Magazine or at his website, or just take a gander at his astonishingly lovely drawings and paintings on Instagram…Oh and tell him what a gifted artist he is: he certainly already knows, but it is always still good to hear.

 

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Let’s talk about the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) which is a sort of tragic mascot of the animals driven to extinction by humankind. Dodos lived on Mauritius, an Island in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar.  The first written record of dodos comes from Dutch sailors in 1598 and the last sighting of a live dodo was in 1662 (or maybe in the 1680s).  They are regarded as victims of the age of colonial exploration: Mauritius was located on the trade route which lead from Europe, around Africa, to the silks and spices of the East.  The poor dodos were at a convenient island in the hungry middle stretch.

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The dodo has historically been regarded as clumsy, fat, and foolish—an animal which perhaps didn’t deserve to exist.  It now seems like this may be equivalent to what motorists say when they kill pedestrians and cyclists–which is to say an obviously self-serving calumny meant to disguise true culpability (although in fairness, colonial explorers weren’t particularly clear on whether other humans had any right to exist–to say nothing of flightless turkey-like birds which lived on an island stop over).  Ecologists and ornithologists now regard the dodo as admirably evolved to its island habitat. Standing 1 meter (3 ft) tall and (probably) weighing 10-17 kg (23–39 lb) the dodo lost the ability of flight, thanks to Mauritius’ lack of predators.  It had powerful legs which suggest it could run quite quickly, and it was not small (so perhaps the dodo took over the niche of some of those missing predators). The birds’ diet was predominantly fruit, whit it digested with the aid of large gizzard stones, although, if analogous creatures provide a clue, it probably also ate insects, small vertebrates and sundry bites of carrion, tender shoots, and eggs.  Speaking of eggs, it seems that the dodo, like many penguins, raised a single egg in a large nest.  They could live up to 20 years. Who really knows though? The people heading through Mauritius in the 17th century were not there to study birds.  It has been speculated that the dodo may have suffered from a lack of fear of humans (which is not unknown in certain modern birds found on remote Pacific islands).  The dodo was also reputedly quite disgusting (to humans) to eat. It seems like the real culprit behind the extinction of the dodo were deforestation (the birds lived in Mauritius’ forests which were quickly leveled) and other invasive species such as rats and pigs which came to the island via boat.

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During the 18th and 19th century, there was substantial controversy over what sort of bird a dodo actually is (was?).  Taxonomists, not unreasonably, suggested they were related to ostriches, rails, vultures, or albatrosses, however the real clue turned out to be in the Dodo’s leg bones which bore unmistakable similarities to those of pigeons.  Other details of facial anatomy and beak structure corroborated this: the dodo was a giant pigeon (although sadly no good DNA specimens now exist to find out further details or resurrect the extinct bird).  Though gone for more than 300 years the dodo clings to a strange ghost life as a symbol of a whimsical bygone era.  Lewis Carrol was apparently fond of them, and Alice in Wonderland greatly popularized the extinct fowl.  Additionally they are seen as a ominous warning for extinctions yet to come if humankind cannot cure its insatiable appetite or find a way to live in greater harmony with nature.  It is ironic that the great missing birds of yesteryear—the dodo and the passenger pigeon—are so closely related to the rock pigeon, the consummate omnipresent nuisance bird of human cities. Island species are often the first to go extinct: their specialized traits make them unable to compete with ruthless generalists.  Yet the dodo’s sadly comic appearance and the touching stories of its friendly openness to sailors do make it an ideal symbol of the danger faced by innumerable species in the Anthropocene.

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OK, I acknowledge that the last few posts have been a trifle thin.  I promise that I will write a real post about a real subject this week (plus it is still poetry month, and also maybe we can showcase some thrilling flounder art!), however for now I am going to showcase some weird found art (?) from the Brooklyn subway.  I was rushing through my desperate morning commute last week when I saw this amazing advertisement…across the tracks on the opposite platform.  The dominant image–a bright eyed pigeon with a melting popsicle immediately grabbed my attention, but I couldn’t read the infinitesimal copy beneath..and the electrified rails (not to mention the 2 and 5 trains going both ways) stood between me and understanding.  I resolved to look it up on the way home, but every day when I trudged home from my dayjob, broken and lost, I forgot all about it.

Only this week, when I was coming home did I remember to look for the poster, and it was nowhere to be found.  Was it papered over with then next iteration of disposable consumer culture?  And where were the posters next to it?  Suddenly it hit me that I go to work in the last car of the subway and go home in the last car of the subway: I stand at different points ends of the platform in the day and the night and have for years without noticing.  So, I walked to the front (back?) of the station where I found the poster and took a real  photo.  It is advertises life in the city–more specifically a life in the arts (courtesy of New York’s School of Visual Arts).  Look at how alert and happy that pigeon is!  I think he might be enjoying the glorious Fourth of July (which still seems like a dream during this cold, dank April).  i am not sure if the pigeon is really an artist (an expressionist maybe) or just enjoying a patriotic frozen treat.

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Last week’s post concerning the ancient Greek oracle of Zeus at Dodona made me curious whether there are any black pigeons or doves (for, according to myth, the first oracle at Dodona was a black talking dove which flew from Thebes). This is a black Indian fantail pigeon, and while there are no indications that the bird can talk it is a gorgeous animal. Look at how selective breeding has given the domesticated fantail a beautiful peacock spread of black feathers and silky ornate foot feathers!

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After yesterday’s soul-searching, let’s take a moment to rest and renew our spirits…with a beautiful bright orange-gold dove from Fiji. This is the orange fruit dove (Ptilinopus victor) also known as the flame dove—a lovely small short-tailed dove which lives in the paradisiacal rainforests of Fiji where it eats an omnivorous diet of fruit, larvae, insects, and small arthropods and mollusks. The male birds (pictured here) have bright orange body feathers and shiny olive green heads (AND blue green legs, skin. and beaks). The females are olive colored and don’t call so much attention to themselves.
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I wonder what it would be like if, through some bizarre fluke, rock pigeons (aka pigeons) only lived on a few small islands in Fiji and the orange fruit dove was found in cities everywhere. Would we be oohing and ahing at the rock pigeons subtle grays with iridescent sheen and dismissively wave off the flame pigeons gorgeous orange as vulgar?
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