Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Friday, March 31, 2006


When I first heard the music of Gogol Bordello, a couple of years ago, I made myself a promise. "Carel," I said, "If this band comes within 100 miles of you, I'm gonna take you to see them". Well, tonight's the big night, and the drive to Park City is a mere dozen miles. Their most recent cd is titled Gypsy Punks, and that's a fairly apt description of their music. Fronted by the crazed and charismatic Ukrainian emigré Eugene Hütz, the band's catchy minor-key melodies often evoke the Hot Club of Paris, while their furious rhythm section adds a post-punk aggression to the mix. Hütz plays rhythm guitar and sings...well, you can't really call it singing, but whatever it is, it's absolutely compelling. His lyrics (in English, often slipping into Ukrainian, Spanish, Italian, or languages known only to the ancients) are at once engaging, literate, amusing, and totally incomprehensible. Of equal importance is the versatile violin of Sergey Ryabtzev. At one moment he'll play in the sweet, lilting style of Stéphane Grapelli, the next in a gritty, scraping manner suitable for a Romani campfire, then suddenly shift into a more mainstream tone that Borodin or Khatchaturian might demand.
I don't expect to get a lot of sitting down accomplished tonight.

Thursday, March 30, 2006


I've been doing this inadvertently for a while now, so let's make it an official series: a list of current blog carnivals I'm participating in, as well as my bi-weekly opportunity to post exhibition updates and basically toot my own horn. Okay, here goes:Tangled Bank, that carnival of natural and medical science is up at Island of Doubt. I forgot to submit to this edition, but that's no reason not to browse it.
The 20th issue of I and the Bird, the carnival of birds and the people they fascinate, is now up on the excellent Bootstrap Analysis.
The invertebrate blog carnival, Circus of the Spineless is due to be posted at Research at a Snail's Pace in the morning, but if Pascal's a bit late, we'll all understand.

Last month I beat up a bit on Radar over at Radaractive for his Darwin Is Dead creationist carnival. Radar's response to this was to send me a very gracious email inviting me to submit to the second edition, which is to be posted on April 3. Old Radar might have some nutty ideas, but he also has a lot of class. I wrote and posted a piece the other day specifically for DID, and I'm hoping to see it included on his site next Monday.
Those of you in the Santa Barbara area have just three days left to see my one-man-show at the Wildling Art Museum. Sunday the 2nd will be the last day of the show. Masterworks in Miniature continues at Gallery One in Mentor Ohio. If you want to buy my Barn Owl Portrait or any of the other many small works in the show, intent to puchase slips must be in by April 1. There's only one more day left to see Birds In Art, the national touring show, at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming. Another National touring show, Art & the Animal, ends April 3 at the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences in Peoria, Illinois. An eleven-person touring show, Art of the Rainforest, opened this week at the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum in Neenah, Wisconsin. It runs through May 15th.
illustration: BARN OWL PORTRAIT (2006) acrylic 8" x 10"


A quick update is in order to the overview that I posted the other day of the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) reintroduction project now underway in the American Southwest. Although these birds are notoriously slow breeders, and wild fledgings are still nowhere near replacement levels, they are definitely on the increase. The summer of 2004 saw a new peak, with two birds fledged, one in the Grand Canyon, and one at the Vermilion Cliffs.

Yesterday it was announced that a condor in Big Sur appears to have laid an egg inside a cavity in a redwood tree. The pair, two of 38 condors currently populating Central California, has been observed guarding the cavity constantly since Monday. The last recorded nesting of Condors in the area was an egg collected in 1905.
Thanks to Neil Kelley.
illustration: CALIFORNIA CONDOR (2005) oil ceiling mount 96" x 72"

Monday, March 27, 2006


Remember Kiwa hirsuta, the recently described deep-sea lobster with the luscious golden tresses (above)? Craftsperson Kristen McQuillen of Tokyo, Japan has created a graven image of the "hairy goddess" in record time (below). See the details of her new plush toy (and a free pattern!) here.

Sunday, March 26, 2006


When I was a boy, my father regaled me with stories of the spectacular “toucans” he remembered from his native Indonesia. As I grew older I questioned these tales when I learned that toucans are restricted to tropical America. Eventually, I decided he was talking about hornbills, the Asian birds that resemble toucans but are unrelated.
One doesn't have to look too far to find examples like these of convergent evolution, and it's often amazing how closely two unrelated species can come to resemble each other after exploiting the same niche. Toucans, which are related to woodpeckers, are found in wooded areas throughout the New World tropics. Their diet consists chiefly of fruits, but is supplemented with small animals; the diet varies some from species to species. In the Old World tropics, the same can be said for hornbills, whose closest relatives are the hoopoes. The most typical members of the two groups are the toucan genus Rhamphastos (which includes the most widespread species, the Keel-billed Toucan [R. sulphuratus]) and the hornbill genera Buceros and Aceros (best known of which is the Great Pied Hornbill [B. bicornis], found throughout Southeast Asia, and one of the species that my father probably knew as a boy). Birds of these three genera are noisy, black forest birds that tend toward pale breasts. Their short legs end in enormous feet. They are the most frugivorous of their respective families, and are armed with enormous, brightly colored bills that serve both as tools and social signals. Rhamphastos, Buceros and Aceros all nest in tree cavities and exhibit a high degree of intelligence. Aside from their much larger size, the hornbills' long white tails provide the main difference in outward appearance, diverging from the stumpy black toucan tails.
It was only a decade or so ago that I leaned about another convergent feature of the two groups—one that also restored my father's credibility. The word “toucan” comes from the Tupi Indian name for the bird, “tucan.” Oddly enough, the Malay word for hornbill is precisely the same: “tucan.” It's tempting to look for a lexicological link here—Dutch sailors carrying the term from Suriname to Indonesia, or some other contrivance. Hornbills and toucans are such magnificent and conspicuous birds though, that I can't imagine either culture adopting a new name for them from foreign explorers. No, I can find no logic in this linguistic anomaly, just another mysterious coincidence that keeps me marveling confusedly at the world.
upper: DRUNKEN HORNBILL--RED-KNOBBED HORNBILL (1996) watercolor 9" x 12"
center: INSTANT OF OPPORTUNITY--EMERALD TOUCANETS (1995) acrylic 22" x 30"
lower: GREAT PIED HORNBILL (2001) acrylic 30" x 20"

Saturday, March 25, 2006


Despite mounting geological evidence, the liberal academic elite has continually scoffed at my years of scholarship concerning the reality of the so-called “fairy tale” of Little Red Riding Hood. That is all about to change, my friends. During my latest field excursion, I unearthed the most important artifacts of my career, which are sure to put an end to any controversy. I was walking a Cretaceous synorogenic conglomerate formation, searching for antediluvian fossils, when my eye was caught by the exquisitely preserved trackway of a WOLF (Canis lupus) that can be clearly seen in the accompanying photograph. These footprints measure 85 cm across--very BIG and, I must say, VERY BAD. Remember, this rock was supposedly formed 80 million years ago, long before the appearance of any large mammal carnivores, and certainly before any canids—yet another INCONSISTENCY in the evolutionists' dogma.
Looking up, I noticed the formation of weaving materials in a weathered pothole pictured here. Look closely at the view of the structure from above, and notice its circular perfection, its strong BASKET-LIKE appearance. Try to tell me that THIS is a product of random mutation! The interior of the basket contained numerous bone fragments which were later identified as belonging to Black-tailed Jackrabbits (Lepus californianus), creatures that would obviously be considered “GOODIES” to a big, bad wolf.
It wasn't until I returned to the laboratory that I discovered the most shocking proof of all. I found this photograph in a well-respected geology textbook. It depicts a part of the very same conglomerate formation where my important work has taken place. To the untrained eye, this rock seems unexceptional; my discovery apparently escaped the attention of the authors, who failed to mention it in their text, but careful examination of the central portion of the photograph will reveal very clearly, a modern-looking tool—yes, a WOODSMAN'S AX! Steel like this has been manufactured for little more than two centuries—conclusive proof that the Earth's age is well under 13,000 years!

Friday, March 24, 2006


Several readers have suggested a post about my painting technique, and, ever the full-service blogger/confirmed pushover, I've chronicled my procedure on this recent acrylic painting, one of a series of commissions for "Vanishing Circles," a collection of artwork being assembled for the Arizona/Sonora Desert Museum depicting endangered flora and fauna of the region. The subject here is a Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizi). All of these images may be clicked on for closer scrutiny.
Step one is executing a drawing - something I'm not terribly skilled at. I know a number of artists who can draw something worthy of Abrecht Dürer in a few short minutes. I'm not among them. I have to plan everything out. A drawing starts with a number of little thumbnail sketches, slowly refining things until I get something I'm happy with. A tortoise is an easy animal to draw, and this drawing was simple and straightforward. With a trickier subject, it's common for me to waste half a dozen sheets of paper refining thumbnails to figure out how to draw a single element.
Once I've worked out how to draw the main subject, I put together a composition drawing. Here I've positioned a male Desert Tortoise preparing to charge an opponent. Our hero's head, where all the intent of the piece will lie, is centered on the page. His body occupies the upper-right quarter of the composition. A hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus sp.) behind him adds mass to that quandrant, suggesting an impending charge from the corner, diffusing that mass into the relative empty space before it. The dark carapace in the opposite corner creates a tension between the two animals, and a stick marks the protagonist's future trajectory. The actual "runway" will be fairly free of stones to add to the effect.
The finished drawing is 10" x 15", one-half the dimensions of the finished painting. The drawing is Xeroxed at 200%, and traced onto a 20" x 30" sheet of Strathmore cold-pressed illustration board. I use a fine red ball-point pen to do the tracing, so I can tell where I've been. In this photo, the seams of four different Xerox sheets can be seen.

My approach to painting in acrylics is completely dependent on watercolor techniques. I never paint with anything thicker than ½ paint and ½ water. Logically, I use watercolor brushes: round sables and mops. My finest detail brush is a 00 rigger. My biggest brush is a 1½" squirrel mop. I prefer long-bristled brushes that I can load up with a lot of paint.
Using the 00 riggers, I paint a detailed underpainting in raw umber. The main objective here is to establish the forms and the textures. I use a Windsor & Newton series 530. This is my primary working brush, hence the term "rigger vitae." One of them lasts an average of about four days.
The textures of the rocks will be established later, so they are left blank. The cactus is also only described by outlines of the bodies and length and direction of some of the spines. This is because the cactus bodies will not appear in the finished painting, only the dense spines will. The main purpose of the underpainting is to serve as a roadmap so I can keep track of the shapes and textures while focussing on other matters, like lighting and color theory. The finished underpainting is tinted with glazes of thin paint. I want this piece to look hot and dry, so the tint is of earth tones composed of large quantities of cadmium orange, a very warm color.
The colors and values of the main subject are established.
The subject is masked off, using light card stock and liquid latex.
I begin painting the background, putting tiny highlights on dirt granules.
The cactus bodies are painted, using the darkest values that will appear in the finished piece. I begin to paint the darkest, least illuminated spines, and successively paint lighter and lighter spines on top of those.
Once the background is established, I remove the mask from the subject, and begin to work on the piece as a cohesive whole.
The shapes, textures and values are all securely on the board at this point. I continue to give depth to the piece by pushing back some parts, pulling others forward, using color temperature and value. I also continually enrich the colors with successive glazes.
Here, the tortoise has received a rich brown glaze. The cactus is beginning to take shape as lighter-colored spines are added.
Detail is added to the dirt to give it shape, and the same thing is done for the tortoise.

The finished piece, with such details as a gray hairstreak butterfly (Strymon sp.) and a honey ant (Myrmecocystus sp.).

Thursday, March 23, 2006


I photographed this tiercel Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) this morning during a hike in Utah's Wasatch Mountains, at an elevation a bit shy of 7,000 ft. He had just delivered an unidentified food item to the eyrie site, and I could hear two birds klee-chipping for a moment before he came back into the open (when I took this shot), then left. I never saw the falcon, whom I assume was incubating. March 23 would be an early date for Prairie Falcons in the desert lowlands to be on eggs, but it is a good month earlier than any eyrie I've seen before in the Wasatch Mountains. Falcons are prone to abandon their eggs if disturbed too much, so I retreated after discovering the site. Assuming this pair is successful, it will be easy enough to infer the date incubation began once the young are half-grown.
Prairie Falcons do not build a nest, but normally scrape a depression in the bottom of a cliff pothole. Sometimes, as in this case, they will use an old nest of another bird. This nest was originally built by Bushy-tailed Woodrats (Neotoma cinerea), and has been added to by Ravens (Corvus corax) and Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), both of which have used the site over the years.
Photograph by CPBvK, March 23, 2006

Monday, March 20, 2006


The leaded window opened
To move the dancing candle flame
And the first moths of summer
Suicidal came.
--Ian Anderson (Moths)

My eyes say their prayers to her
Sailors ring her bell
Like a moth mistakes a light bulb
For the moon and goes to hell.
--Tom Waits (Black Market Baby)

Thus hath the candle singed the moth.
O, these deliberate fools! when they do choose,
They have the wisdom by their wit to lose.
--William Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice)

What natural phenomenon could have possibly inspired more poetry, literature and song than the headlong dash of the moth for the flame? References to it can be found in the religious mythology from any part of the world, and it doesn't take much imagination to picture our ancestors mixing moth metaphors around a Neanderthal campfire. Yet for all its history of human fascination, it's a curiosity that we still don't understand at all.
Positive phototaxis is the technical term for an organism's attraction toward light. It's been well studied among photosynthetic bacteria, where it's obviously beneficial, but its advantages for the insect hurtling into a fiery death are less clear. Some have postulated that it's linked to lunar navigation, but this seems unlikely to me. Others claim that flying toward a light source keeps moths from crashing into the ground. University of North Carolina medical technologist Henry Hsiao put forth an interesting theory concerning the Mach Band, an optical illusion well known to painters, where a harsh line between darkness and light produces an apparition of two bands, one light and one dark. Hsiao asserted that moths fly into the dark Mach band in an attempt to evade the light, which puts them into orbit around a terrestrial light source—a marvelously creative explanation. To my mind, the most logical hypothesis posits that moths fly perpendicular to light radiation. Under a normal night sky, this keeps them flying horizontally, but will cause them to circle about a candle if that is the brightest light source.
Whatever is actually going on inside their little cerebral ganglia, the lights of the city have changed nighttime reality for moths and for many other creatures as well. Prone to a form of phototaxia myself, I often find myself drawn to lights in search of interesting insects. While working at a Costa Rican biological station, I began each morning by checking a black light screen set up specifically to attract insects. I have a number of favorite “nocturnal birdfeeders”--a lamp not far from my house is a dependable spot to observe our largest local bat, the Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus), and most summers I visit an isolated streetlamp in the Mojave to watch Lesser Nighthawks (Chordeiles acutipennis). What is a resource, though, to certain nocturnal nature-watchers and insectivores, is a decided threat to others. Many insects live as adults only to breed. Many of these, like the giant silk moths of the family Saturniidae, do not feed as adults, and live but for a few days. Many of these insects have become incredibly scarce as the adults have come to devote those precious hours not to mating, but to dashing their head against a hot bulb. Twenty years ago, I rented a house in the center of about 100 acres of undeveloped land surrounded by city. A couple of years into my stay, a grocery store was built on part of that land. That summer I visited the store every evening to admire the astonishing variety of moths and other insects that perched upon a brightly illuminated back wall. Subsequent years have brought but a few common species to the wall—a statistically insignificant anecdote, but still I assume those lights were responsible in part for eliminating a good chunk of the neighborhood's insect fauna during that first summer.

Each year the night skies brighten, with fewer vantages from which to appreciate the Milky Way. Twenty years ago, most of my favorite regional haunts were impossible to negotiate on moonless nights. Today it's possible to read a book in most of them. For thousands of years we've marveled at the seductive pull of the moth to light without adequately explaining it, and we remain just as clueless to its implications. Like so many of the changes we introduce, the ecological impact of city lights can only be fathomed by recording it as it occurs.
upper: ATLAS MOTH (1999) watercolor 15" x 10.5"
center: NUTTALL'S SHEEP MOTH (1998) acrylic 5" x 3"
lower: GLOVER'S SILK MOTH (1998) acrylic 9" x 7"

Thursday, March 16, 2006


KEN BREWER 1941-2006
Ken Brewer, Utah's Poet Laureate, Professor of literature, writing and poetry at Utah State University for 32 years, and a delightful human being, died at home last night of pancreatic cancer. A gifted teacher and ambassador of the humanities, his hundreds of well-crafted and accessible poems stand as a tribute to a great guy. Here's one of my favorites:


Before humans,
dogs flew everywhere.
Their wings of silky fur
wrapped hollow bones.
Their tails wagged
like rudders through wind,
their stomachs bare
to the sullen earth.
Out of sorrow
for the first humans--
stumbling, crawling,
helpless and cold--
dogs folded their
great wings into paws
soft enough to walk
beside us forever.
They still weep for us,
pity our small noses,
our unfortunate eyes,
our dull teeth.
They lick our faces clean,
keep us warm at night.
Sometimes they remember flying
and bite our ugly hands.

-- Kenneth W. Brewer

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


A big fat wheelbarrow of thanks goes to Grrlscientist for her unnecessarily kind introduction for my contribution to Tangled Bank Issue #49, which is hosted this week on her blog, Living the Scientific Life. There you can browse through 34 posts concerning natural science and medicine.
I'm looking forward to seeing what form I and the Bird #19 will take at Science and Politics this week. This carnival of birds, humans, and the intersection of the two is due to appear Thursday morning, but with an incubation period of 14-17 days, I'm expecting Coturnix to get it posted early.

This Friday is St. Patrick's Day, and what better way to celebrate it (if you're in the vicinity of Mentor, Ohio) than to attend the opening of Masterworks in Miniature at Gallery One? This is one of the country's premiere miniature exhibitions, with small works from over 100 of the world's top artists. Well...if you're in the vicinity of Salt Lake City, Utah, you could drop by my book signing party instead, at Ken Sanders' Rare Books, in downtown SLC. Both events run from 7-9pm in their respective time zones.

Monday, March 13, 2006


No vertebrate order exhibits a wider range of reproductive strategies than do the frogs. Like all amphibians, their eggs have no shells and are vulnerable to desiccation. In open water that is not a problem, but there they are subject to predation by fish and other animals. It is the tension between these two dangers that has led frogs down so many different reproductive paths. There are frogs that lay their eggs in burrows, on land, on leaves, in foam nests, and in every imaginable kind of water vessel. Members of several families carry their eggs on their own backs in several different ways—in fact parental care is widespread and varied among frogs. The females of the two species of the Australian genus Rheobatrachus, which probably went extinct in the 1980s, actually brooded their eggs in their own stomachs. Parental care has probably been best documented among the Neotropical poison frogs of the family Dendrobatidae. A small number of eggs are typically laid on a leaf on the forest floor, where they are guarded by one or both adults, who urinate on them periodically to keep them moist. Upon hatching the tadpoles are taxied to water on the back of an adult. Probably the best known member of this family is the Strawberry Poison Frog (Dendrobates pumilio) of Central America's moist Caribbean lowlands. Within their range these aptly named ½-inch long amphibians are extremely common, and their life history has been documented time and again in the literature for well over a century. The male guards the eggs, and the newly-hatched tadpoles are transported, one at a time, to the tanks of a pre-selected bromeliad, where they are deposited. The female returns regularly to lay an infertile egg in each tank, for the tadpoles to feed upon. The original accounts described the male carrying the tadpoles to the bromeliad, and for many decades naturalists (myself included) simply took the older literature at its word, and credited Papa Frog for the effort. The fact that the she-frogs had been doing the actual hauling went unnoticed until the 1980s. The sexual dimorphism of this species is far from obvious, but the males can be distinguished from the females by their slightly smaller size and beefier first two fingers. Most of what we know about the world we know from being told. If we questioned it all, we'd have time for nothing else. Still, having an open pair of eyeballs can be very rewarding.


Well, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker's prospects are looking a little more grim each day. In an earlier post I described how Jerome Jackson had shaken my faith in the bird's existence. Since then some magnificent photographs of leucistic Pileated Woodpeckers (left) have been taken in the Cache River Refuge, confirming that the genes for extra white feathers occur in that population. Word on the street has it that this Friday's edition of the journal Science will feature a paper by bird identification whiz-kid David Sibley agreeing that the famous Luneau video is indeed of a Pileated. It's disappointing to feel the hope drain from my body like this, but what's even more disturbing is the kind of vitriol I see among the devotees of the Ivorybill. I have friends who are deeply angry at me for considering the skeptics' arguments.
I was once annoyed at the moniker “Lord God Bird,” which suddenly sprouted up in the language. It smacked of Madison Avenue hucksters developing a brand, but now I'm coming to see it for the appropriate description it is. David Luneau inadvertently built a temple in the Arkansas swamps, and a large congregation was eager to worship there. The arguments in defense of the Lord God Bird sound more and more like Creationist dogma, the faith-based diatribes of Bush apologists, or the proclamations of Mt. Ararat "ark-eologists."

I don't mean to suggest we give up hope on the Ivorybill. Nothing would make me happier than to have clear evidence of the bird, and for clear evidence I'm happy to wait.
(For further information on the subject, visit these two excellent blogs: the devout and the infidel.)
lower: STRANGE FRUIT--IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER (2002) acrylic 30" x 20"

Sunday, March 12, 2006


Around eight centuries ago, Polynesian sailors began to settle New Zealand. They were the first mammals to have ever set foot on the islands, save for three bat species, and their effect on the ecology was immediate. The lack of mammalian game was more than made up for with a rich bird fauna. Niches occupied elsewhere by mammals were exploited here by bird species, and without ground predators, many lost the ability to fly. The most spectacular of these flightless birds were the giant moa (order Dinornithoformes), huge, native ratite birds. All ten species of giant moa were hunted to extinction within a century. A smaller, fifty-pound species, Megalaperys didinus probably survived in remote mountains until the 17th century. These people, the ancestors of today's Maori, were soon joined on the islands by their commensal, the Polynesian Rat (Rattus exulans)and by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Ultimately, European sailors introduced more mammals into the mix, including House Cats (Felis cattus), Stoats (Mustela erminea), and their own species of ship rat, Rattus rattus. The collective mammalian armada wiped many New Zealand bird species right off the islands. By 1970 it was feared that this fate had reached one of the archipelago's most amazing birds.

The Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) is unique among parrots. Nocturnal and virtually flightless, it is also the most massive psittacine bird, weighing as much as eight pounds. The males congregate to display in leks, much like some grouse species do. As the last of the Kakapo lay in peril of the ever-increasing Stoats, a restoration program was put into effect. This plan involved trapping the entire known population of about 50 individuals and transferring it to Maud Island, a small, predator-free island in the Marlborough Strait. This strategy was first used at the end of the 19th century, when reserve manager Richard Henry moved 200 Kakapo to Resolution Island, northwest of South Island. Within a few years, Stoats swam to Resolution Island and killed the entire population, and it didn't take them long to make the transit to Maud Island, either. A big part of the program has since consisted of moving the birds from one island to the next, always a half-step ahead of the rats and Stoats. For the past three years, the Kakapo have been transferred between two tiny islands, Chalky and Codfish. When trees are fruiting massively on one island, the birds are taken there, while predator control maintenance is effected on the other. Hen Kakapo normally lay eggs only in years of plentiful food, usually every three years or so. Once managers began augmenting the females' food supply, the birds laid every year, but with a strong bias toward producing male chicks. Females have since had their diets carefully monitored, to keep them at a weight where they will produce at maximum capacity, but with an even sex ratio. The current population of 86 birds is highly inbred—all but one of the original Maud Island birds came from Stewart Island. The single bird from the South island is a 50-ish year-old male named after Richard Henry. Artificial insemination has been used only recently to try to keep the gene pool as diverse as possible.
Meanwhile, on my side of the globe, a similar program has kept the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) from extinction. Relicts from the Pleistocene, when North America's fauna was rich with huge herbivores, the once plentiful condors mostly vanished once the Clovis culture extirpated the mega mammals. By the time Columbus set sail, condors only clung on in North America's southwestern tenth and in the rugged South American Andes. Although their distribution was limited, California Condors ranged widely. Under favorable circumstances, they could fly from California's Imperial Valley to the Columbia River in a day, and at the peak of the salmon runs, they would take full advantage. As the continent was developed, the vast open spaces the birds depended on dwindled. What large animal carcasses could be found were often tainted with lead bullets or by cyanide coyote traps. By 1985 a mere 27 birds remained, and the bold decision to take the entire population into captivity was taken.

Like Kakapo, wild California Condors do not usually produce every year. In captivity their eggs were whisked away to incubators, and the hens often laid replacement eggs. Captive propagation has been very successful, and in 1992 reintroduction began in California and Arizona. Today 127 condors live in the wild, including a wild-fledged four-year-old. 146 Condors are presently in captivity, including eleven that are being prepared for release. The bad news is that deaths, mostly from power line collisions and lead bullet ingestion, still far outnumber wild births. Practically all of the Arizona birds have had to be re-trapped for chelation therapy for lead poisoning. A number of behavioral problems, such as extreme tameness are being manifested, but it appears that California Condors will continue to wheel in the sky for some time to come.
Both of the species mentioned in this post are the equivalents of ICU patients, with EKGs monitored and tubes up their nares. They are in a state closer to captivity than wildness, and would collapse if we were not there to prop them in place. They have literally outlived their own homes. I'm fully in support of the Herculean measures being taken to keep the patients out of the grave; these are extraordinary birds, and losing them would be a human tragedy if not a natural one. But we should ask ourselves if this is the kind of natural world we want to leave for future generations. We can expect to see more of the kind of intensive management that takes place today on Codfish Island and the Vermilion Cliffs. The line between zoo and refuge is continually being smudged, and that's the biggest tragedy of all.
upper: KAKAPO--PARROTS OF THE NIGHT (1990) acrylic 30" x 20"
center: CALIFORNIA CONDOR (2005) oil ceiling mount 96" x 72"

Friday, March 10, 2006


A collector emailed me these photographs of a print. She's trying to figure out who the artist is. It is signed 2-1-'85 B. Kempen. That's exactly 50% of my last name, but it ain't my work! I've tried several searches, with no results. Anyone out there know this B. Kempen person? It's not a bad painting.


In an attempt to thwart the spread of bird flu, George W. Bush has bombed the Canary Islands.
(Thanks to Liza Myers)
INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMACY (2004) Watercolor and ink 10" x 8"

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


A new exhibit at the University of California, Berkeley's Valley Life Sciences Building features the cast of a foot-long Triceratops horridus skull, thought to have belonged to a year-old, three-foot long individual. The skull was recently unearthed from Montana's Hell Creek Formation, and represents the youngest-known Triceratops. I was shocked to see the well-developed horns and frill in the photograph. Such adornments are usually absent in newborn vertebrates, and don't fully manifest themselves until sexual maturity. In the current issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, UC Berkeley paleontologist Mark Goodwin states:

"The baby Triceratops confirmed our argument that the horns and frill of the skull likely had another function other than sexual display or competition with rivals, which people have often argued, and allows us to propose that they were just as important for species recognition and visual communication in these animals."

In addition to that, it suggests to me a complete lack of parental care, necessitating early development of defensive capabilities.
As a nature artist, I often have to make assumptions to make up for knowledge I lack, and sometimes find that I've painted a lie. Such may be the case with the ceratopsian pups in the two accompanying paintings, with rudimentary horns and frills, guarded by their parents. Painting paleo reconstructions requires the making of many assumptions. Like Goodwin, I assume that ceratopsian frills served as social signals, and I gave them bold colors or patterns. Likewise, I painted the rigid Dromaeosaurus tails blue, assuming yet another visual social signal. These dinosaurs are thought to be closely related to the line that gave rise to birds, and I gave them little “feather boas.”
Mistakes like my smooth-headed ceratopsian pups are forgivable, but I sometimes catch myself making wrong assumptions about contemporary nature, too, as I did in the painting above, based on memories of Cameroon's Korup Forest, where I observed a Chestnut-backed Owlet (Glaucidium sjostedti) on several occasions. This bird is a much larger version of the Northern Pygmy Owl (G. gnoma), an American bird that I know rather well. In Utah, Pygmy Owls are bold predators that often tackle very large prey, and, assuming the African bird had similar habits, I paired her with a bird I had seen in the same area and mis-identified as a Red-billed Wood-hoopoe (Phoeniculus purpureus). Some years after painting the piece, I learned that Chestnut-backed Owlets appear to eat mostly insects, and certainly not Red-billed Wood-hoopoes; the ranges of the two species are not known to overlap. The Wood-hoopoes I saw in Cameroon were probably the closely related P. bollei, which has a buff cap. Oops.

POSTSCRIPT: Speaking of making an ass, I just now noticed the smaller skull in the lower-left portion of the top photo. That is the yearling Triceratops, which is shown next to the skull of an adult for comparison. The horns and frill are still bigger than I would have expected, but I'm no longer shocked. Oops is right.
upper: Photograph from Science Daily
second: Totosaurus Herd--detail (1997) acrylic 15" x 10"
third: Chasmosaurs vs. Dromaeosaurs-- detail (1991) acrylic 20" x 30"
lower: Chestnut-backed Owlet & Red-billed Wood-hoopoe (1996) acrylic 7" x 9"