Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Natural History Museum Inspired This, Part 3... Nests and Eggs!!!

Good Morning, FinderMakers! During my last two semesters at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I had the great pleasure of participating in a scientific illustration course that met within Chicago's venerable Field Museum of Natural History. I have worked for several prominent art museums over the years, and have always appreciated the privilege of having a "backstage pass", or unlimited access to stored artwork and areas of the museum that the regular patron doesn't often see. I had never been granted that special access in a natural history museum, however, and eagerly looked forward to each session of the illustration course, as the instructor went to great lengths to expose the depth and breadth of natural wonders held therein for us study and draw from.

One session was held amid thousands of bottles containing preserved specimens of ocean life forms; another took us into a room densely populated by live colonies of dermestid beetles, busily stripping various animal carcasses down to the clean, white bone. One afternoon, a friendly Ornithologist showed up with a small bird that had perished after flying into a window, and demonstrated the process of bird taxidermy from start to finish; afterwards we were invited into a storeroom in which many compartmentalized storage boxes full of various bird eggs and nests had been set out for us to draw. I was quite taken with the beauty and diversity of the eggs, and have always marveled at the ingenuity of the feathered architects who build their cozy homes from grasses and twigs, or whatever other suitable material is at hand (or beak, I suppose!).

A couple of years later, I was ambling along the shore at Stinson Beach, north of San Francisco, and noticed that a stormy tide the night before had washed up countless long wisps of fine, dark seaweed tangled together with ribbons of seagrass roots, feathers, and other little bits of natural shoreline detritus. All of these masses gave the impression of bird's nests having been unwound and strewn about the sand. Of course they weren't, but I determined that I should collect as much of the stuff as I could conveniently handle, and set about figuring how I might turn it into convincingly realistic faux bird's nests!

I think the conversion was very successful, and was achieved thusly: I simply soaked the tangled masses in water so that they became pliable, then straightened them out and carefully wrapped portions around the bulbous end of several different-sized laboratory boiling flasks to achieve the characteristic nest shape. I then wrapped each wet "nest" loosely with twine so that it would stay in place, and somewhat compressed, on the flask, and set them all out in the sun to dry. When they were all dried out, I simply unwound the twine and slipped them off the flasks... bird's nests!

Oology is the term used to describe the collection and study of eggs, and although the practice of collecting eggs from nests in the wild is now quite illegal in most localities, the practice was wildly popular amongst hobbyist collectors during the 19th, and into the 20th centuries. I enjoy the look of eggs, but wouldn't dare collect them in the wild. In the photo below, I have constructed a wooden box, 12" long x 8" wide x 4" deep, with Plexiglas interior dividers, to display my homemade nests in. A sheet of glass slides into grooves cut into the side walls of the box to cover and protect the contents.

For eggs, I purchased a few dozen quail eggs from a Japanese market (sold for culinary purposes... not hatching) and pierced them on each end and blew out the contents. Some of these I painted white, others I left natural: brown and cream speckles. I also added a few colored artificial eggs from the craft store for variety, and, believe it or not, the easter candy aisle at your local drug store will be a great source for good looking eggs in the coming months. I have a few candy-coated chocolate eggs in there as well!!!

Below is a lovely book of mine that allows the bird enthusiast to identify birds by the appearance of their eggs. I don't spend much time peering into birds nests out in the wild, but I certainly do enjoy perusing the beautiful images of eggs and related information in this book!

And, finally... The esteemed artist Rosamond Purcell has published a book of her beautiful egg and nest photographs, many of which were exhibited at the wonderful Harvard Museum of Natural History last year. I have yet to see the book in person, but have no doubt that it will be stunning!

I Thank You for joining me for the third installment of "The Natural History Museum Inspired This!" and do look forward to sharing with you again soon!


Next Door To Magic said...

Your blog is so much fun, yet another reason to love the internet. These eggs are wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

Paul Baxendale said...

Thanks so much NDTM!!! Your blog is full of fun stuff too! I cant wait to learn more about life on the Faroe Islands!

Lisa at Lil Fish Studios said...

Lovely, lovely. I'm really drawn to nests and find myself incorporating them into my work often. Since I'm short on boiling flasks, I use rocks to help shape mine(much more plentiful in my MN landscape).

I have to add, that both the School of the Art Institute and the Field Museum are two of my favorite places in Chicago, in good company with the Shedd (and Gino's). Whenever I'd stop at the AI, I would sneak through the back hall and check out the student exhibits, where there always seemed to be something interesting going on.

I'm enjoying your blog very much, and I'm looking forward to seeing what else you'll be sharing.

Danielle and Clint said...

WOW! What a beautiful piece of work! Very inspiring.

Liz said...

Never having had experienced fall before this year (I had lived in a two-season part of the world, haha), I was thrilled to see the lovely bare trees reveal the nests they had been hiding. Do the birds return to the same nest when winter's over? It's so charmingly lovely. And you are AMAZING to have made these nests and eggs so believable!

Paul Baxendale said...

Thankyou Liz! I experienced the same thing this fall when we went apple picking very very late in the season and most of the leaves had fallen off the apple trees. They were LOADED with birds nests!

My understanding is that most birds that build the twiggy, grassy cup-shaped nests do so in the spring with the intent of raising chicks in them. The nests are abandoned in the fall when the birds migrate, and do not return to the same nests.

There is an informative article about nests here: http://people.eku.edu/ritchisong/birdnests.html
There are all sorts of interesting facts in there: did you know that many birds weave antimicrobial herbs into their nests, presumably to help protect their chicks from infection?

The article concludes by saying that nest collecting is illegal, but I'm not sure that is true if it is late fall or winter and the nest has clearly been abandoned (I don't want to promote illegal activities on here though... I guess "make your own"
will be my stance on the subject!)

Thanks for you kind comments and for stopping by to chat!

Liz said...

I agree with your "make your own" motto. I, myself, would want to leave the nest where it is especially now that the trees are bare. They're like treasures peeking out.
Thanks for taking the time to reply, Paul! Can't wait to see your next project. :)