I started actively studying nature through birding at the age of twelve. That’s when my eldest brother came home from college after taking an ornithology class. His interest passed to his three brothers and we initially drove the country roads outside Elburn, Illinois with a set of 10 X 50 Sears binoculars and a Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds.
Earlier in life, I’d been given one of those bird guides by my mother’s older sister. So the seeds for an interest in birds were planted well before I ever came of age. This 20-minute video explains that journey and how my interest in bird identification and art ultimately merged into one hobby of wildlife painting.
From the age of twelve on, I drew and painted birds all the time. Initially, my efforts weren’t that impressive. Back then, resources to copy weren’t that available and I didn’t own a camera. So I drew what I’d call “impressions” of birds from bird guides and the creatures I’d seen in the wild.
Over the years, as I learned more about birds and got a camera, my paintings somewhat improved. Yet one of the key learning tactics was copying the work of other artists such as Louis Agassiz Fuertes, as I did with this watercolor of a great horned owl.
The progression of an artist from copying the work of others to producing definitive work of their own is in some ways a lifelong endeavor. Yet once I graduated from high school and entered college, I started that process in earnest. I took an internship trip to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology and studied the works of dozens of famous wildlife painters. While there, I drew birds from life in the raptor center at Sapsucker Woods.
Once the process of creating my own work as in full swing, I took on the project of creating a set of life-sized murals for the Lake Calmar Nature Center. That involved painting four 4′ X 8′ panels in a month-long January Term project. The photo in the newspaper shows the relative scale of these paintings.
An article appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette that winter. It stated my life’s hobby in pretty succinct fashion.
I’ve gone on to sell hundreds of paintings in my lifetime. All along, it’s been my goal to teach others to enjoy wildlife and appreciate the diversity around us. I do that by leading field trips, citizen science projects and sharing work in shows, exhibitions and classrooms.
Now, I’m going to launch a new venture called a Patreon site. It will be a combination of my two deep interests, nature and art. Here’s a quick sample of the content that will appear on that site, a demonstration of how I draw and paint a kestrel while explaining some facts about the bird.
The site will be launching on the 15th of January but I’m giving readers of this blog a “sneak preview” of what is to come. I’ve always felt it’s important to share and give back, and this site will be a great way to interact with people who appreciate and support my work. I’ll send out an invitation on the 15th when the site is officially open. We’ll be doing live painting sessions through Zoom with Covid-safe, remote “painting parties” and more.
Thanks for reading The Right Kind of Pride. Now let’s create some things to be proud of together!
While out conducting a breeding bird census in a forest preserve named after a legendary local botanist named Dick Young, I was wrapping up the count and walking back the asphalt path to the parking lot when an older couple on bikes rolled up behind me. They’d gone all the way around the loop through the restored prairie on a windy spring morning.
Our conversation started when they showed me a photo they’d taken of a bird perched on one of the count posts in the prairie. I identified it as a meadowlark and they were pleased with that. “I thought it was a woodpecker with that long beak!” the man observed. It wasn’t a bad observation. This photo I took that same morning of a meadowlarks shows the long bill. Probably if it chose to use it in hammering wood, it would work. But that’s not its evolved purpose.
After the meadowlark discussion, my new friend started chatting about how he actually knew Dick Young, who did so much to identify the plants that designated the Illinois Nature Preserve at the heart of the preserve named after the man.
Along with Dick Young, it turned out we had many mutual friends as a result, because he told me, “I’m Jerry Hennen. I was President of Fox Valley Audubon sixty years ago.”
“Whoa,” I chuckled. “I was President of Kane County Audubon probably thirty years ago.”
“I’m eighty-five,” he proudly told me.
His wife Delores smiled and told me. “And he doesn’t hear that well.”
In fact, I’d noticed the song of a sedge wren right behind them, and pointed out the bird. They’re a small species with a high-pitched song that goes ‘chapp-chapp-chapp-chapprrr.” But Jerry has lost that range of hearing, so he couldn’t hear it. We talked about the problems of aging, and I told him about a website for which I’d written the content about hearing aid technology and advances. He made me repeat the name so he could look it up.
Then he related that he has a son my age. “I could be your father!” he laughed.
I’m proud of all these longtime associations. Grateful that there are people I meet almost every day that can add to the breadth of life like this. It’s also interesting that our shared interest in birds brought us together one late spring day.
Over the years I’ve lost a few birding friends along the way. My high school teacher and birding mentor Bob Horlock passed away in 1993. He was only 53 when he had a heart attack while burning a restored prairie. By coincidence we’d met that morning at the same forest preserve where I connected with Jerry yesterday. Bob didn’t look himself that morning, a fact I related to my wife at the time. Were it not for that chance meeting in the field that day, I’d not have seen him one last time.
For all these longtime associations, one of my favorite things to do these days is share birding with people new to the activity. I get texts from people sending iPhone photos of birds they’ve seen. Two months ago I accompanied a newer birder into the field and she was so excited by the thrills gained from bird photography that she invested in a lens just like mine fo her camera. She instantly nailed some beautiful results.
That’s the ‘thrill of the new’ at work in her and others. Each and every bird we find is one of those chance meetings in the field. Like our human companions, their songs and visage give us a connection to all of nature. That’s why some of us get sad when we hear that a species of bird is struggling, or going extinct. That sense of loss is hard to reconcile.
That is why, during this period of greed and squander in America, when environmental laws are being tossed aside out of selfish pride and power, that our nature connections matter the most. The eagles we treasure as national symbols made a big comeback in the Lower 48 states of America because real Americans cared enough to end the practices that were polluting the environment and wiping out habitat critical to the survival of these and many other species. That was the right kind of pride, for sure.
During that critical period of environmental awakening in America, a certain man named Dick Young carried on a secret life of civil disobedience as an environmental activist. During the polluted late 1960s and early 1970s, wildlife was suffering and rivers were catching fire in Ohio, he started punishing the industry and politicians responsible for trashing the world. Under the guise of The Fox, his activist name, he’d collect gunk from the polluters and return it to them on the white carpets of their headquarters with a written reminder to clean up their act. He was an environmental patriot of the most sincere kind.
Though some had suspicions, and others kept quiet about the mystery of The Fox, no one ever figured out or revealed the true identity until the work was long done, and that was after the turn of the new millennium.
Real change did come to America through the actions of environmentalists such as Dick Young and my new friend Jerry Hennen. The quality of the environment in America improved through legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (by a Republican president, no less…) and protections such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty.
All our environmental protections are in the process of being trashed by a brutal narcissist with a reputation for selfish acts of power. His sycophants gladly carry out this work, and his beneficiaries gleefully relish the demise of regulations they consider fruitless. This must be stopped.
It is all our responsibility to play a role in protecting our earth. Sometimes that means dumping industrial pollutants on the carpet of a polluter, but other times it simply means voting for people who won’t destroy creation for egotistical reasons.
Why trust the future of the earth to economic zealots who can’t tell a robin from an rusted aluminum can?
Willful ignorance of nature and a selfish desire to wield dominion over it is not an acceptable way to live, in my opinion. That’s clearly not the right kind of pride in this world. Not by any means.
Which is why, every day that we can, it is up to all of us to resist these efforts to compromise the most important thing we all have in this world, the earth and its life, because it all comes down to the fact that every one of us is here just by chance, and this is the only one we’ve got.
When I was five years old, my mother’s sister Carol handed me a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. Somehow she knew that I’d be interested in the subject. Over the years I purchased many other field guides that improved on the methods of the original book developed by Roger Tory Peterson. Yet I owe a sentimental debt to that first copy. It fueled my interest and taught me so much about the natural world.
With an early passion for drawing, I began tracing the birds in the Peterson’s Field Guide with a special focus on the hawks, which drew my attention the most.
By the time I was twelve years old I was painting and drawing birds on my own. And when my eldest brother came home from college on fire with interest in birds after taking an ornithology course, we all went out in the field together to identify every bird we could find. These I marked down with eagerness and pride.
Among my friends, the interest in birds was at that age a point of teasing and ridicule. The nickname “Birdman” was applied with some disdain. But I ignored those supposed insults and kept painting and drawing birds because frankly, I was by then making some money at it.
Through high school, I found a mentor in Robert Horlock, a biology teacher with whom I spent hours in the field. He introduced me to other birders. That led to my first engagement with Citizen Science as a founding member of the Nelson Lake Marsh Bird Survey team that tracked breeding and migratory species in a newly established wetland preserve. We participated in annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts as well, a commitment that lasted for thirty consecutive years.
That bird survey team was one of the first times in my life that a seemingly childish interest felt validated in the adult world. My ability to credibly identify birds was respected by the adults with whom I met on a quarterly basis. My trips afield for that purpose felt serious and important. I was contributing to the preservation and conservation of something that I really loved. And having fun doing it. That was the right kind of pride, I thought.
Admittedly there was some ego involved in all my birding and art pursuits. As a young man with a strong need for approval, the praise earned for finding bids and doing artwork was a prized reward. So were the bragging rights in having seen twenty species of warblers on a cool spring morning, or calling in a peregrine falcon to the Rare Bird Alert phone line that served as the Internet for birders before the digital revolution began.
The thrills of birding over the years have included rare species that turned up at odd times. I wrote an article published in Bird Watcher’s Digest last year documenting the day that I found a European Stonechat in Illinois. It was the first of its kind seen in the Lower 48 United States. Lacking a camera on-site at the moment––it was before the era of cell phone cameras––I rushed home to do a painting and share it online. But unfortunately, the sighting could not be officially recognized by the Illinois Ornithological Union or any other organization because the bird was never viewed by another credible birder. Those are the rules. So the thrill of finding such a rarity remains a pleasure of my own accord.
These days I am well-equipped to document everything found in the field. Perhaps my obsession is in compensation for the frustration of losing that sighting of the Stonechat to the ether of personal history. I geared up over the years with a high-quality spotting scope to which I attached a series of digital cameras to take pictures of birds. Finally, I purchased a 150mm-600mm Sigma camera lens to use with my Canon camera. It’s not top-end gear, but it is fun to capture images of the birds I’ve studied for so many years.
It would have been nice to have that kind of camera in my early years of birding when I tried so desperately to find “references” for my bird paintings. Back in the 70s and 80s when wildlife art was a big scene, it was artists with access to detailed photography that won the day. I tried to replicate that process over the years and finally produced some relatively solid work using my own photo references. But by then the market for bird paintings was waning. Digital photography now makes wildlife imagery so commonplace that entire sites on social media fill daily with photos of birds and other creatures. In many respects, the thrill that once came with celebrating those insights of nature is gone.
That said, my interest in birds has matured. My fascination now is with their behavior, and I still love leading people into the field to share in the thrill of seeing species of birds they never imagined existed. My personal life list of American species sits just below 500 and I’ll happily accept any new species that comes along. But that’s a rarity for sure these days unless I travel to a new place such as the Pacific Coast, where I hope to bird some day.
I’ll still paint birds and have a library of 20,000 images from which to work. It is a catalog of the time spent outside staring through optics and camera lenses at living things that deserve to be protected, celebrated and appreciated. I guess that’s enough approval for a bird nerd at last.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com.
I arrived with $750 in my pocket and no place to stay. How my parents allowed me to take off on my own without talking about a place to live for three weeks in the snowy environs of Upstate
New York I don’t really know. They’d both grown up near Ithaca. They knew what the winters were like. My father attended Cornell and my mother went to college in Potsdam, even further north. I guess they figured I’d asked the question and found somewhere to live. All they knew was that I was enthused about studying bird art during my sophomore year in college and had visited the Lab one time before with an aunt that understood my love for the work of Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
So I took off for New York in my father’s big, white Buick LeSabre and arrived, all naive and eager, on the doorstep of the Lab with little else in mind than to do everything I’d dreamed about.
Fortunately, the director had mercy on my idiocy and found me a place to stay about a mile down the road from the main building. It was a house in the middle of rehab work. so it offered no running hot water, but it did have heat. I was only too glad to take it and I genuinely relished the time alone.
Once that pragmatic issue was solved, I dove right away into the work of curating the Lab’s prodigious bird art collection. Some of it remained stored in cluttered chests of drawings and paintings donated by the estate of artists such as Richard Bishop. I carefully handled each of these works of art and copied some of the drawings in my own hand. For me, this was the Holy Grail of bird art, a look behind the scenes at some of the finest bird artists in the world.
In the morning I’d hide away in the closets out of sight from the occasional visitor staring at feeder birds outside the Lab windows. Feeling no compunction for human contact, and obsessed with the work before me, I went days without talking much to anyone.
And then I wandered over to the Hawk Barn where rare peregrine and gyrfalcons sat in cold pens, part of the breeding program set up at Cornell to revive the populations of those endangered birds in the wake of the pesticide devastation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. One day I stood peering through a tiny porthole doing drawings of a gyrfalcon and a set of peregrine inches away from my face. I felt no need to talk.
This went on for a week. I’d hike the mile to the Lab, curate or draw all day, eat a small sandwich along the way, and hike back after dark. It snowed at least an inch every day, so the world always looked fresh and inviting. The cold barely affected me.
Yet one night I finally felt the need to bathe and wash my thick head of hair. So I heated up some water on the stove, broke out a washcloth to take care of the vitals and then washed my hair under the sink. But it still required some heavy rinsing, so I took another deep pan of lukewarm water outside to stand in the snow and pour the water over my head. It was four degrees below zero outside.
Instantly my hair froze, but I wasn’t that worried about it. Yet when I’d stopped dripping and tipped my head up to look around, I felt something watching me. To be sure, it was one of the wolves from the Wolf Range peering at me through the darkness. It stood back from the fence a ways. I tipped my head back down and went inside. To this day it still feels like a dream. Perhaps it was.
For weeks I filled an art book with sketches and observations about my studies of bird art and works by masters such as George Miksch Sutton, Don Richard Eckleberry and Guy Coheleach. These were my heroes, and their work spoke to me in language as clear as an actual conversation. So I seldom needed to talk.
I only broke the relative vow of silence toward the end of the internship. I’d learned that a well-known artist lived near the Lab, so I fired up the LeSabre and was glad that it started at all, for it had a testy carburetor that tended to freeze over.
That afternoon I poured out questions to the artist, who kindly tolerated my aggressive curiosity, enthusiasm, and obsession with my own studies. He warned me that a career in bird art would likely never be lucrative, that one had to be lucky as well as good, but if you worked hard enough sometimes the two would combine.
That gave me pause of course. Perhaps I’d imagined that immersing myself in all that world-class art would somehow punch a ticket to the stardom I somewhat imagined for myself. So that interior dialog took up the rest of my time. It swirled inside my head as if my mind were an inside-out snowglobe matched by the daily batch of thick flurries falling from gray New York skies.
But I was happy. The last day of my internship the Laboratory director took a look at my collection of paintings and was complimentary of some of the feather work. “But you need to look at the whole bird to be convincing in your work,” he quietly instructed me.
That would honestly be a lesson learned over a lifetime. I never became famous for my bird art but have sold more than a thousand paintings over the years. Some of them pop back into my life now and then, and I calmly critique those early works with the inner dialogue of a painter unafraid to be alone with his thoughts, or his endeavors.
That is the social distance that all of us consumed with the arts or writing tend to keep. It is the space between the praise and production that drives us to be our own best and worst critics. It involves quite a bit of interior dialogue and even time apart from all of humanity to find the truth. But nature is never the enemy. It is the type of social distancing that works for me. It always has. And it always will.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com