Explore an Interactive Version of The Wall of Birds, a 2,500 Square-Foot Mural That Documents the Evolution of Birds Over 375 Million Years

Now, this avian Vat­i­can also has its own Michelan­ge­lo.

Audubon Mag­a­zine

And the Class of Aves has its very own avian Pan­tone chart, cre­at­ed by sci­ence illus­tra­tor Jane Kim in ser­vice of her 2,500 square-foot Wall of Birds mur­al at Cor­nell University’s Lab of Ornithol­o­gy.

The cus­tom chart’s fifty-one col­ors com­prise about 90 per­cent of the fin­ished work. A palette of thir­teen Gold­en Flu­id Acrylics sup­plied the jew­el-toned accents so thrilling to bird­watch­ers.

Along the way, Kim absorbed a tremen­dous amount of infor­ma­tion about the how and why of bird feath­er col­oration:

The iri­des­cence on the neck and back of the Superb Star­ling comes not from pig­ment,

but from struc­tur­al col­or. The starling’s out­er feath­ers are con­struct­ed in a way

that refracts light like myr­i­ad prisms, mak­ing the bird appear to shim­mer. The epony­mous

col­or­ing of the Lilac-breast­ed Roller results from a dif­fer­ent kind of struc­tur­al

col­or, cre­at­ed when woven microstruc­tures in the feath­ers, called barbs and bar­bules,

reflect only the short­er wave­lengths of light like blue and vio­let.

The pri­ma­ry col­ors that lend their name to the Red-and-yel­low Bar­bet are

derived from a class of pig­ments called carotenoids that the bird absorbs in its diet.

These are the same com­pounds that turn flamin­gos’ feath­ers pink. As a mem­ber of

the fam­i­ly Musophagi­dae, the Hartlaub’s Tura­co dis­plays pig­men­ta­tion unique in the

bird world. Birds have no green pig­men­ta­tion; in most cas­es, ver­dant plumage is a

com­bi­na­tion of yel­low carotenoids and blue struc­tur­al col­or. Tura­cos are an excep­tion,

dis­play­ing a green, cop­per-based pig­ment called tura­coverdin that they absorb

in their her­biv­o­rous diet. The flash of red on the Hartlaub’s under­wings comes from

turacin, anoth­er cop­per-based pig­ment unique to the fam­i­ly.


Kim also boned up on her sub­jects’ mat­ing rit­u­als, dietary habits, song styles, and male/female dif­fer­ences pri­or to inscrib­ing the 270 life-size, life­like birds onto the lab’s largest wall.

She exam­ined spec­i­mens from the cen­ter’s col­lec­tion and reviewed cen­turies’ worth of field obser­va­tions.

(The sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Eng­lish nat­u­ral­ist John Ray dis­missed the horn­bill fam­i­ly as hav­ing a “foul look,” a colo­nial­ism that ruf­fled Kim’s own feath­ers some­what. In retal­i­a­tion, she dubbed the Great Horn­bill, “the Cyra­no of the Jun­gle” owing to his “tequi­la-sun­rise-hued facial phal­lus,” and select­ed him as the cov­er boy for her book about the mur­al.)

Research and pre­lim­i­nary sketch­ing con­sumed an entire year, after which it took 17 months to inscribe 270 life-size creatures—some long extinct—onto the lab’s main wall. The birds are set against a greyscale map of the world, and while many are depict­ed in flight, every one save the Wan­der­ing Alba­tross has a foot touch­ing its con­ti­nent of ori­gin.

Those who can’t vis­it the Wall of Birds (offi­cial title: From So Sim­ple a Begin­ning) in per­son, can log some dig­i­tal bird­watch­ing using a spec­tac­u­lar inter­ac­tive web-based ver­sion of the mur­al that pro­vides plen­ty of infor­ma­tion about each spec­i­men, some of it lit­er­ary. (The afore­men­tioned Alba­tross’ entry con­tains a pass­ing ref­er­ence to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.)

Explore the Wall of Birds’ inter­ac­tive fea­tures here.

You can down­load a free chap­ter of The Wall of Birds: One Plan­et, 243 Fam­i­lies, 375 Mil­lion Years by sub­scrib­ing to Kim’s mail­ing list here.

Via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cor­nell Launch­es Archive of 150,000 Bird Calls and Ani­mal Sounds, with Record­ings Going Back to 1929

What Kind of Bird Is That?: A Free App From Cor­nell Will Give You the Answer

Mod­ernist Bird­hous­es Inspired by Bauhaus, Frank Lloyd Wright and Joseph Eich­ler

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City Feb­ru­ary 11 for The­ater of the Apes book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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