Think Fast: What Bird Is This?

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An extreme close-up shows the detail required to capture the different textures of this iconic bird’s plumage. (Photo courtesy Ink Dwell)

The Bird

Hero and villain, mascot and movie star, the penguin captures the imagination unlike any other bird. Upright and bipedal, they look like us. Monogamous, devoted parents, they behave as we do. We celebrate their strengths, parody their shortcomings, and make them the subject of our myths. In studying penguins, we learn about ourselves.

On the Wall of Birds—a 70′ x 40′ mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology depicting the 375-million-year evolution of birds—an emperor penguin stands at attention. Topping four feet and 100 pounds, this to-scale emperor is the largest of its species, tall enough to stare an adolescent child in the eye.

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The mural depicts the 375 million year evolution of birds, showing 271 species drawn to scale. It will be the only one in the world showcasing all the families of modern birds in one place. (Image courtesy Ink Dwell)

Emperors are the heroic embodiment of parenthood. After waddling some 75 miles, males winter on the Antarctic tundra without food, enduring temperatures of minus 40°F (which is also -40°C) and hurricane-force winds, incubating their eggs. Four months later, the female returns to raise the hatchling, her mate returning to sea.

Their plumage—high-density feathers adapted for swimming, not flight—allows for anthropomorphic ambiguity. Are they wearing the black masks of crooks? Or the regal couture of heroes? Cast as villains, penguins antagonize Wallace and Gromit and battle Batman. As protagonists, they appear on the silver screen as surfers, dancers, and mutinous sailors who usher their animal friends to freedom on Madagascar.

Celebrated in both the Academy Award-winning documentary “March of the Penguins” and the animated film “Happy Feet,” the emperor penguin holds the unique designation as the only bird to win back-to-back Oscars. It also happens to be the only bird to dive to depths of 1,800 feet, stay underwater for nearly 20 minutes, and endure the polar winter for the sake of its young.

They’ve earned their celebrity.

With reference photos and her original pencil sketch taped to the wall, Jane Kim adds the final painted details to this section of the mural. (Photo courtesy Ink Dwell)

The Art

“I paint the birds in familiar positions,” says artist and Ink Dwell founder Jane Kim. “Many times that means creating the illusion of movement and energy. The emperor penguin was a different case. These birds spend months and months standing still, incubating their eggs, so I wanted to capture that.”

When completed, the mural titled “From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Evolution and Diversity of Birds,” will be the only one to showcase all 241 modern families of birds in one place. “Penguins are so awkward on land, with their bellies and funny waddles, it would be easy for an image like this to slip into parody,” says Kim. “The trick was to balance the inherent humor of their upright shape with their true strength and nobility.”

Here, the penguin stands statuesque, scanning the horizon for his returning mate. “The contrast of colors on this bird are especially dramatic. The rich orange of his upper body gives warmth and character to a black and white canvas.”
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The world’s largest penguin, the emperor stands up to four feet tall and weighs 100 pounds. (Photo courtesy Ink Dwell)
The penguin’s short, tightly packed feathers are designed for hydrodynamics and insulation in cold water. Blue-grey highlights on the back and tail create a dense, almost scaly look. “Cadmium orange is one of my favorite highlights,” Kim explains. “It brings shapes to the forefront and adds vibrancy. I used it to accentuate the penguin’s feet, because those play such a crucial part of the bird’s survival, in both swimming and nesting.”

See All Posts From the Wall of Birds Project

To follow daily progress, check out Ink Dwell’s Facebook and Instagram feeds. For more information on the mural, head to the Cornell Lab’s Wall of Birds website. 

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Thayer Walker is a writer, explorer, and entrepreneur. He is the co-founder of Ink Dwell, a studio that uses art to inspire people to love and appreciate the natural world. As a correspondent for Outside magazine he has written about everything from deep sea exploration to being stranded on a desert island for 20 days. He is an advisor to Summit, a leadership organization based at Powder Mountain, Utah.