The Grackle Who Sang the World Awake
After I posted my painting of The Grackle who Sang the World Awake on Facebook, I was asked to tell the story of how that painting came to be. So, here it is:
When I was in Costa Rica I met a bird who sang the sounds of the world to me. I was on a trip loaded with birders who came equipped with special cameras, binoculars, books, and meticulous lists of birds. Costa Rica is a birder’s paradise because of its multiple ecosystems in a relatively small space: mangrove swamps, Caribbean coastal plains, the Pacific Ocean, the rainforest, cloud forests, the mountains. Each niche is populated by unique birds, over 850 species in a country the size of West Virginia, more than the U.S. and Canada.
Our birders were in heaven, seeing over a 100 different species in a few hours and compiling pages of new birds, capturing images of flitting, flying, diving, sleeping creatures with crescents, dots, splotches, amazing beaks and wings. And yes they saw the elusive Quetzal whose feathers are so brilliantly spectacular, so iridescent that if eye shadow and nail polish could be created those shimmering colors they would be best sellers and we rather drab humans would give birds some competition. The birders, including our leader, were mostly male, carrying cameras with telephoto lenses adding at least six inches to the camera.
I was a complete failure at this. Well, not complete. I was able to see Macaws, toucans, flycatchers, banaquits, tanagers and hundreds of hummingbirds sipping nectar from birdfeeders, but I also see them at home, in fact right now a gorgeous green one is at my feeder. I was terrific at taking photos of sloths who moved only an inch an hour, hanging from their claws overhead with their faces like fuzzy babies. The only Quetzal I saw was stuffed in a museum, but of course I snapped his picture so I could remember his colors, long swooping tail, and the strange look of his small head, beady eyes, and tiny sharp beak stuck on top of his long, graceful body.
One afternoon, I sat on the porch of my room, and tried to capture the turquoise sea and cerulean sky of the Pacific with watercolor. I heard a melody, which sounded like an aria from an opera and thought someone was playing the radio. A few minutes later, there was a siren, then a howler monkey. I looked around, couldn’t spot a monkey, but saw a large bird sitting right above me on a branch. He was black with iridescent purple and indigo feathers, backlit by the setting sun. I painted while he serenaded. With a startling gold eye against his blue black feathers, open beak, he sang, not just a repetitive melody and trills like most birds do, but whistles and thrills and screeches, and sweet melodies, too. He gloried in the abrasive sounds of the forest as well as the city. Clutching the branch with great claws, he crooned away to me and the setting sun, while I happily painted.
Now this was a bird to be excited about, amazing in his noises and variety.
At dinner that night, I told the birders about him and asked what he was. They were nonplussed as he was simply a common Great-tailed Grackle living across much of the southern and western U.S. as well as all of Central America. Widespread, frequent, and ordinary. Not spectacularly beautiful or rare. Yes, I understand the fascination with seeing the spectacular and wondrous assortment that evolution has wrought in bird species. And yes, I understand the fact that the birders, mostly men, were following their own evolutionary imperatives as they relentlessly hunted, shot the bird with a long pointed camera and brought it home to be added to a list.
“But his song is amazing, this was a talented and creative bird, able to make a huge range of sounds, all the sounds of the world and he was so happy doing it.” I bragged about his incredible talent. “He isn’t just pretty and rare, he says something,” I exclaimed. “Looks only last, what, maybe five minutes. It’s what is said that’s important.”
The women got my point and chuckled.
The men resumed their tasks, eating or working on bird lists.
When I came home, I tried to capture, to relive once again the magic of the Grackle’s serenade as he played the sounds of the world to me. And painted some of the world he sang.
And that’s the story of the painting, THE GRACKLE WHO SANG THE WORLD AWAKE.
The painting is 3 feet by 4 feet. Here are some details of the painting so you can see some of what the grackle sang: