To celebrate its centennial, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has commissioned Ink Dwell studio to create a mural 70 feet long and 40 feet high depicting the 375-million-year evolution of birds through paintings of 270 species.
When complete it will be the world’s only mural depicting all the modern families of birds in one place. It’s a historic project, on a massive canvas, and artist Jane Kim got started with an appropriately giant bird: the southern cassowary.
As a continent colonized by convicts and packed with some of the world’s most venomous animals, it’s fitting that Australia is home to a bird as prickly as the southern cassowary.
Standing five feet tall and topping 100 pounds, the flightless cassowary is the MMA champion of the avian world. It can jump five feet in the air, swim across rivers, and has inner toes that bear five-inch slashing blades, built to disembowel.
Though shy, these modern-day velociraptors have been known to attack and even kill humans, a prospect so “terrifying and ignominious” that Outside magazine once ranked death by cassowary as one of the 10 worst ways to die in the wild. Still, attacks on people are generally rare, mostly occur as a result of poor human judgment, and can usually be avoided by following this simple rule: do not provoke the giant bird armed with murderous dagger claws.
It’s not just the bird’s feet that have evolved to face a hostile environment. The cassowary has long quills that curve along its body and coarse heavy plumage to protect against thick undergrowth. The prominent crown on the top of its head is called a casque, which may play a role in acoustic communication and serve as head protection as the bird runs through the jungle at 30 mph (48km/h).
“The cassowary feels monstrous and heavy and reptilian and prehistoric,” says artist and founder of Ink Dwell studio Jane Kim. In the new mural, titled “From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Evolution and Diversity of Birds,” she depicts the cassowary in action. Its right leg is raised mid-stride; its body is thrust forward as if running through the rain forest, bright pink wattles swaying in motion.
“The blue wrinkles on its neck reminded me of the folded scaly skin on an iguana,” says Kim. A splash of white on its naked turquoise head offers skeletal shadow, showing off the bird’s prominent brow ridge. A cold stare adds to the bird’s alien mystique.
Kim also sought to capture the animal’s impressive mass and weight. On its back, highlights hint at the cassowary’s heavy musculature under a dense mat of feathers. Its left foot is planted firmly on the ground, skin bunched at the joint as it continues its stride. Only one of the cassowary’s deadly toes is fully visible, the other tucked behind the foot—a hint of danger.