How You, Too, Can Take Unfair Advantage of Cold, Hungry Birds

Red-winged blackbirds make short work of expensive bird seed and shove aside the sparrows, juncos and chickadees. Might as well draw the little beggars.

We’ve had our second snowstorm in a month and a half; a little unusual for Oklahoma, but not out of line for these latitudes. A few days ago an ice storm roared in and sheathed everything with about 1″ of frozen glass, and the following morning the snow started and didn’t stop until the ice was buried by a foot of white fluff. Magically beautiful. Ignore the popping of laden tree branches. They resonate like rifle shots in the clarified silence of the snowscape; I can picture Hussars hunting stags on taiga (or less romantically, neighbors hunting squirrels fattened on my blackoil sunflower seeds).

Deadly beautiful ice storm; trees bow humbly to their cold winter Master.

When it quit snowing, the moon came out. It was full and brilliant and cast crisp blue-green shadows across the fields. The ice on a million branches glittered like a lacework of white neon. Magical.

Deer, emboldened by hunger, looking for green stuff and spilled birdseed.

Naturally, my house is snowbird central for everything feathered and a furred. Suet, seed, cover and open water provided free of charge. When the ice was falling the long-tailed birds got the worst of it; icy clumps adhered to tail feathers. I’ve kept the pond pump on and the waterfall running; bathing and drinking can’t be put off no matter what the weather.

How to get that glowing red on a cardinal? vermillion hue- my new must-have color.

I can’t let an opportunity pass by; I’ve been sketching the meleé from the studio window. Feeder birds are perfect for study and wonderfully convenient, and a lot of shy species are getting bold in their hunger. My feeder list includes 4 species of woodpecker, a red-shouldered hawk (who got white-shouldered in the snowstorm), a noisy mob of 100+ red-winged blackbirds, sparrows of 6 flavors and a brilliant yellow pine warbler. The cardinals give it a real Christmas card touch.

Drawing birds is one part anatomical learning (look at the schematic drawing of a bird at the front of any field guide. It looks kind of like a chart showing a side of beef divided into cuts. Here’s the auricular [ear patch], that’s the mantle [upper back], this is the supercilium [eyebrow] and over here is the brisket. Before drawing, learn the parts) to one part concentrated looking (pick one species and keep looking until your eye adjusts to its proportions. Focus on drawing a particular body type, say, that of a wren, or a sparrow until you’re comfortable with it) to one part memorization (practice “freeze-framing” a single pose in your mind’s eye for the few seconds it takes to put it on paper. Look hard, shut your eyes tight and clench that image in your mind for a second or two. Don’t look back at the bird again- just look down at the paper and draw your mental image).

Pine warbler male chowing down on suet. It's his third winter appearance at Chez Motmot.

Get your hand moving so fast you can whip it around on the paper; don’t fuss over details. For a warmup exercise to help you gain a fast hand, you might try the technique shown in this video.

Red winged blackbirds relax after filling up...

If you’re snowbound and looking for a satisfying challenge, give bird drawing a try. You are a captive audience anyway. Take advantage of the situation and sketch those hungry avian models as they plow through your expensive birdseed and suet. And happy drawing!

Looks like angelfood cake. Needs candles, or strawberries and whipped cream.

14 thoughts on “How You, Too, Can Take Unfair Advantage of Cold, Hungry Birds

  1. Ken Januski says:

    Great drawings, great drawing instruction and wonderfully written as well! It is REALLY hard deciding which drawing/painting is my favorite. I love Pine Warblers, especially as they’re one of the first warblers of spring here — but they’re still a good 6-8 weeks away I think. On the other hand the blackbirds are very striking. And then there is the cardinal. I give up. I’ll just enjoy them all.

    Good luck to everyone with their bird drawing.

  2. Shanley in Ponca City says:

    We’re enjoying hungry birds up here in northcentral Oklahoma too. We didn’t get the ice that you got, but we’re buried under 6-8″ of the white stuff.

    I’m seeing all sorts of new things visit our feeders … goldfinches (I think — but after seeing your pine warbler, now I’m wondering) … and some handsome little blue guys. Blue birds? Really? A gang of 6. They had vibrant rust colored bellies. Blue heads and bodies. Beautiful! My gasp scared everyone in the house when I saw them.

    A couple of woodpeckers, some little brown sparrows, and our usual juncos, cardinals and blue jays.

  3. wrjones says:

    Beautiful photos and even beautifuler paintings. With that many birds the cost of your models in birdseed is equal to paying a human model or two for the day.

    You could have the neighbors over to draw and split the cost of seed.

  4. zeladoniac says:

    Shanley, I first thought the pine warbler was a goldfinch, too. They share superficial characteristics. But the warbler is pretty rare; take a close look at the bill if you aren’t sure. The finch bill is more conical and heavier than the warbler’s thin one. There are other differences, but that’s a start.

    I don’t really begrudge them the birdseed-that’s just me posturing for effect:-)

  5. kathiesbirds says:

    What a wonderful look into your world and your mind! Thanks for the encouragement to draw! I can’t believe all those red-winged blackbirds. I did not know they would come to a feeder like that! I saw some at San Pedro house (along the San pedro river) near Sierra Vista in January and couldn’t even guess what they were at first because for me, they were out of context!

  6. zeladoniac says:

    Thanks, Cheryl- it’s really an honor to be nominated, especially considering the strong lineup. I’m crossing my fingers!

    On red-winged blackbirds at our feeders: it’s funny that almost all of them are females. We didn’t get any males until the last snowstorm. The sexes either are wintering in separate flocks, or just feeding in separate flocks. Anyone know anything about this behavior?

  7. sandy says:

    Lucky Me! I’ve just discovered your blog, looked over your different categories and realized you have a lot of archives. Love your art and when I have time I can read back through the archives. Your birds are fabulous.

  8. Kelly says:

    We are slowly moving from Steller’s jays and chickadees to spring time. Ok, that’s totally wishful thinking, it’s February! Thanks for sharing your winter birds.

  9. Amy says:

    Your art is stunning! I am a birder who wants to learn to sketch birds – your site is very inspiring. I’m wondering what you recommend for basic supplies. What is your favorite type of paper and pencils or pens? And if you don’t mind sharing, can you tell me what you used to create that beautiful cardinal? Is it watercolor or some other medium? Thank you for your help!! Amy

  10. Curtiss says:

    Love the redwing blackbirds! Coincidentally, I just dragged a post on redwings out of my archive to highlight for the next week or so. They’re just returning now to Connecticut. (Added you to my blogroll, as well.) Great work!

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