New World Birds & Old World Birds

Old World Dove Meets New World Dove

Old World Dove Meets New World Dove

The image above is actually a combination of two separate photographs taken within a few seconds, because the birds involved wouldn’t oblige by moving closer to each other! What’s remarkable about the image is that it shows, in the same location, an Old World dove alongside its nearest New World equivalent. It’s an extremely unusual example of two such species being in the same place at the same time.

One of the inconveniencies of emigrating to a new continent, as I did about 30 years ago, was that I discovered that my knowledge of natural history had suddenly become inadequate, and at least partially irrelevant.

Start Learning All Over Again!

Growing up, I’d learned to recognize and name most British bird species, but now I found myself faced with an complete new set of bird species, almost none of which were the same as those that had become familiar to me in the “old country”.

I noticed quite quickly that there were many cases where a particular ecological niche that was occupied by one species in Britain was occupied by a different species in California (a type of Convergent Evolution). Sometimes, the two species are closely related and even look very similar, but there are other cases where the relationship is more distant and the species obviously differ in appearance.

In the photo above, on the left is an Old World Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto), while on the right is an American Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura). Although they are different species, their behavior and lifestyle are highly reminiscent of each other. Their calls even sound very similar.

In many cases, the reason for the presence of the Old World species in the New World is because of deliberate or accidental introduction of the Old World species by humans. This explains the presence of Eurasian Collared Doves in North America; about 50 of them escaped from captivity in the Bahamas in 1974, then jumped to Florida, and from there across the rest of the continent.

There are many other examples of species that are either closely related or which occupy the same ecological niche. For example, in California the Brewers Blackbird occupies the same niche as the Eurasian Starling (although, since I moved to California 30 years ago, Starlings have invaded and partially displaced the Brewers Blackbird–but I didn’t bring them with me, honestly!), the American Coot is very similar to the Eurasian Coot, and the American Great Blue Heron is similar to the Eurasian/African Grey Heron.

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Great Blue Heron in the Napa River

Early Confusion

In fact, I should already have been warned of this problem before I was five years old! My grandparents bought me an American picture book called Bunny Hopwell’s First Spring (which is not only still available, but also now in a Kindle version!). It was quite common for them to buy me American books because those were often on sale at “remaindered” prices at our local supermarket.

At one point in the Bunny Hopwell book, there was a picture that claimed to depict a conversation between a rabbit and a “robin”. Now, Robins were a common sight in our large back garden, so I immediately objected that the image “looked nothing like a robin”. My grandfather had to explain to me that this was a picture of an American Robin, which indeed did not look like our local robins. Apart from the fact that they’re both birds, the only other common feature of the two species is that they have red breasts (which is why the American species was so called).

American Robin

American Robin

I was most disgusted by the book’s apparent inaccuracy, and wondered why Americans couldn’t figure out what a robin looked like. (My pedantry does seem a little misplaced, though, since I was willing to accept the idea of animals and birds talking to each other without complaint!)

While visiting England in 2012, I was able to photograph a robin in a field near Brockley Hill, London. The photograph, shown below, eventually formed the basis for our Christmas card design that year.

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Eurasian Robin at Brockley Hill, London

Even more potentially confusing is that, while the American Robin is not closely related to the Eurasian Robin, it is very closely related to the Eurasian Blackbird. Growing up in England, the constant song of Blackbirds, interspersed with their chink-chink-chink alarm calls, was a familiar sound. The calls of American Robins are almost indistinguishably similar.

Sometimes They Are The Same

Having said all that, there are some cases where the same species does occur naturally in the Old World and the New World, or at least where any human introduction of the species into an environment is lost in the mists of prehistory.

A good example of this is the Barn Owl (Tyto alba). The same species occurs all over the world, although there are differing subspecies on different continents.

When I came to design the logo for my professional web site and my fledgling publishing business (“if you’ll pardon the pun”), I decided to include owls as part of the design, and not just any owls, but specifically barn owls. I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but the choice of a species with worldwide presence now seems appropriate!

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Teklibri Owl Logo

A Voyage Round My Father’s Artwork

Barn Owl and chicks. Pencil sketch by my father

Barn Owl and chicks. Pencil sketch by my father

A Voyage Round My Father’s Artwork (with apologies to John Mortimer).

Recently, while scanning some items of my own childhood artwork, I realized that one of the books of drawings included a few sketches drawn by my father. The book was produced when I was about 8 years old.

When I was young, I took it for granted that my father could draw well, but there were some aspects of his skill that puzzle me now:

  • Why did he make so little use of that skill? (He had been an electrician, a wireless operator, and a teacher, but never an artist of any kind.)
  • What happened to all the other artwork that he must have produced? As far as I know, the only way to acquire skill in drawing is to practice it, but I don’t recall seeing any artwork produced by him during his early life. The only remaining examples that I have are these few in my own drawing books.
  • Did my father only draw subjects that were other drawings or photographs? Didn’t he ever draw “from life”? The examples I still have are all copies of drawings or paintings from other books. I also recall his doing some oil paintings later on, but those were copied from his own color transparencies.

Unfortunately, my father is long gone, so I doubt that I’ll ever learn the answers to those questions.

The pencil sketch above shows a barn owl feeding a mouse to its chicks. I know exactly the source of that sketch, because I still have the original book containing the illustration, a children’s book called “More Birds and their Eggs”. The relevant page is shown below:

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Barn Owl and Chicks from More Birds and their Eggs

My father also added a couple of sketches to the cover of my drawing book, of which one is shown below. This sketch was done with a ballpoint pen rather than a pencil. I’m not sure of the source of these drawings, but they were probably based on illustrations in the “Observer’s Book of Common Fungi”, which was our source for such information at that time.

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Pen sketch of fungi, by my father

I was clearly inspired by my father’s efforts, and produced sketches myself (in the same book of drawings) that were copies of other illustrations in the “More Birds and their Eggs” book. The example below shows a male Merlin:

My pen sketch of a male Merlin, copied from More Birds and their Eggs

My pen sketch of a male Merlin, copied from More Birds and their Eggs

As the example shows, my own technique at that time was to draw everything directly with a ballpoint pen. I allowed myself no opportunity for error correction: if it was wrong, then that was just too bad. It didn’t occur to me to draw an initial sketch in pencil, then correct that before inking in the final drawing, and I wasn’t taught that approach until much later, when I formally studied art at school.

As I said above, my father is long gone, so it’s unlikely that the questions I have about his artwork will ever be answered. It does seem a pity that he didn’t make more use of a skill that was presumably hard-won, so I must try not to repeat that mistake!

A Seasonal “Throwback”

robin_sharp300_7x5v2cI chose a seasonal theme for today’s “Throwback Thursday” image. This was our Christmas card artwork for 2012.

I took the photograph when I was exploring the remains of the never-completed Brockley Hill Tube Station, in London, in October 2012. The bird was sitting in a bush in what’s now known as the “Arches Field”.

It had never occurred to me before then that robins are popular subjects for Christmas cards only in Britain. When I was a kid, my parents received many cards featuring robins every year, and I even have the remains of one such card (dating from the 1960s) today, because I later “repurposed” it for use in one of my own drawing books.

The American Robin is a different bird species, of course, but you’ll rarely see an American card featuring any kind of robin (cardinals are actually more popular as subjects, although we don’t have those in California).

The British penchant for associating robins with Christmas  had been noticed by the New Scientist magazine, which published an article about it 56 years ago today: Robins for Christmas.

Season’s Greetings to everyone!