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Passenger Pigeon Print!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

As an artist who enjoys bringing extinct species to life, I have a fossil bone to pick. What I want to know is this. Why do most reconstructions of extinct creatures wind up looking like this? From a recent USA Today article about what must've been a bitchin' toothed albatross:

I should qualify that question. I want to know why these paleontologists don't get ahold of someone who knows how to draw lively images of related living species. (Why don't they call me??)  I actually know why most reconstructions wind up looking spare and unimaginative, sterile and tentative. It's because many artists simply clutch when asked to draw something out of their imaginations, something they can't copy from a photo. I would wager a bet that this person had never drawn an albatross. Maybe they don't even know how to draw birds. In my opinion, freely and rashly given, there's nothing right about this drawing, from the bulbous, football-shaped body to the feet to the wing structure to the structure, insertion and feel of the head, neck and bill. The expression is blank. Its eye is dead. There's nothing believable going on here, artistically or biologically. I would have LOVED to have a chance to draw this bird. 

Unfortunately, you see the same sterile renderings and blank, boring backgrounds in reconstructions of many extinct taxa: mammals, dinosaurs. It's like they're all drawn by the same person. And I think it's because the artists are clutching. They're not relying on living creatures as their source of reference, aren't bothering to figure out what their habitat might have looked like, so they come up with these tentative, lifeless images.

Here's what you do when you're drawing an extinct bird. You go off what you know of its nearest living relatives. Granted, painting a passenger pigeon is a LOT easier than painting a Teratornis, because there exist some beautiful  photos of living passenger pigeons, and lots of mounted specimens.

Still and all, I wanted to create a scene that hadn't been painted before: a family with a half-grown nestling. I'd show the male's gorgeous coloration off to best advantage, in a classic three-quarters pose, but I'd paint Mom and baby in poses that I know mourning doves assume, that I've drawn many times from living birds. I'd give them dancing sunlit beech leaves as a backdrop, put some color and pizzaz in the picture.

Three of Billions: Passenger Pigeons at the Nest
by Julie Zickefoose
Image size: 9" x 12"
Fits standard 14" x 18" frame when matted.

 Though I'd drawn them, I'd never painted passenger pigeons until Editor/Co-Publisher Bill 
Thompson III asked me to do a Bird Watcher's Digest cover to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon's extinction, September 1, 2014. It's a story that's been told again and again. Martha, the last remaining passenger pigeon, passed away at the Cincinnati Zoo that day. My dad was two years old. It was a sad, sad day for biodiversity; a sad period, during which man did everything in his power to exterminate a magnificent torpedo of a bird, a bird that operated as a many-celled organism in vast migratory flocks that blotted out the sun. 

 In reading essays and treatises on the passenger pigeon, written in observance of the 100th anniversary of its extirpation, I’m struck by the fact that almost all seem to dwell on the mechanism, the process of its extinction. Perhaps that’s because that’s all we really know of this singular bird. It’s as if we were collectively asleep until it hit us that the thundering flocks were suddenly no more. I wanted to paint a tribute to the passenger pigeon as it lived, not as it died. This is a portrait of its domestic life, the deep investment of a pair in their single squab. I have never seen a painting that depicts a nestling, and I wanted to do that, to draw on what I know of mourning doves to imbue this image with life and feeling. I've raised a few mourning doves, watched them with their parents at the nest, and I wanted to convey the affectionate nature of pigeons in the painting.

Could there have been two squabs in that nest, the story might have ended differently. But the passenger pigeon, like its single child, was one of a kind, with an ancient reproductive strategy. Swamping any potential predators with simultaneous colonial nesting worked fine for raccoons and hawks. But the master predator, ready and able to ship traincars full of pigeons to waiting markets, was nothing the passenger pigeon had faced in its evolutionary history. All these thoughts ran through my head as I mixed the gorgeous peach and slate colors of their feathers, and wished them back to life, if only on a sheet of watercolor paper.

Three of Billions: Passenger Pigeons at the Nest is a digital proof made right here in Marietta, Ohio, at Richardson Printing, using state-of-the-art equipment with UV inks on Strathmore Linen archival paper. I got to breathe over Printer Bob's shoulder as he tweaked the color, and though Richardson Printing knows I'm notoriously fussy about color, I'm really happy with the result. Such one-off digital proofs as Three of Billions are often referred to as “giclees,” which is a fancy French word for a print that’s made on demand. This saves a lot of money and a lot of trees. Instead of firing up a huge press and running an obligatory 3-500 prints, as was formerly done with my Bird Watcher’s Digest cover images, I can now have the image printed only as I receive orders.

Three of Billions is available as an unmatted giclee print directly from Julie Zickefoose.
 Image size is 9" x 12", and it mats up to 14" x 18" (standard sized frame).

 $50 includes shipping; you may send a personal check made payable to

Julie Zickefoose
 Indigo Hill Arts
 Whipple, OH 45788

 To order and pay by credit card, you may use the DONATE button on the right sidebar of this blog homepage. Be sure to include your address! Don't worry--it's not really a donation. You'll get a gorgeous giclee print, signed by the artist. That would be me!

As always, thank you for your support. I'm excited about the potential of giclee prints, and I'm already thinking of other popular paintings of mine that would lend themselves to such a treatment. It's all a big experiment, an adventure, trying to send two kids to college on a freelance artist's income. Every little bit helps.


Julie, what size is the giclee print?

Just amended the post, thank you, Sharpeyes!!

Image size is 9 x 12", and it will mat up to 14 x 18", which is a standard frame size.

Absolutely gorgeous. Love the color that makes them seem so alive. Most photos and drawings make them look dull, dream like.

You definitely know how to make your birds look alive. Thanks for the post and picture.

I got to visit an exhibit at the Canada Museum of Nature a few weeks ago on the passenger pigeon. Scientist think they could resurrect the passenger pigeon by using DNA from specimens and putting it in band-tailed pigeons. But these birds need to be in big (and we don't know how big) flocks to breed and they need vast forested area. So they would have to be large numbers of them "manufactured" before they would naturally breed and we don't have the habitat they need to survive.
The Passenger Pigeon Project site has wonderful stories, poems, scientific information and the written down memories of of the passenger pigeon. Your readers may like to see more information there:

A must-read which includes a very convincing explanation for how billions of individuals of a species could be wiped out in a few decades is
A Feathered River Across the Sky, by Joel Greenberg

The single squab is an essential element of the story along with the adult's habit of NOT returning to the next after the serious disturbance that occurred during a nesting site massacre. In Greenberg's analysis, this meant TWO generations of pigeons wiped out...

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