Let's Go Boiding
A review by Eric Salzman
Extinct Birds Boids
by Ralph Steadman
240 pages, $50–hardcover
Feathered Dinosaurs: The Origin of Birds
by John Long and Peter Schouten
Oxford UP, 2008
208 pages, $39.95–hardcover
In early 2011, a documentary filmmaker by the name of Ceri Levy had the odd idea to ask Ralph Steadman—an artist better known for his social and political black-humor caricatures (think Hunter Thompson) than for his love of nature—to contribute to a multi-artist exhibition entitled Ghosts of Gone Birds. Steadman’s first effort, the Japanese Egret (sic), appears to have come straight out of a video game. But shortly thereafter, a stupendous “Great Extinct Auk” appeared, followed by a Giant Moa and a Choiseul Crested Pigeon—real gone birds indeed. And then, astonishingly enough, especially considering Steadman’s previous line of work, the “boids”—as he prefers to call them—continued to appear in a steady stream for the better part of a year. In the end, there were 100 sheets, enough to fill not only a whole room at the exhibition but an entire coffee-table art book from Bloomsbury.
A few of Steadman’s boids are not yet actually extinct, but most of them, including a shocking number from Hawaii, are indeed not around any longer to appreciate or to protest their high-handed treatment from the wicked pen of one of the great cartoonists of our time. The boids emerge from some unlikely ink splatters and then, like the canny politicians and wise guys Steadman loves to caricature, take on all sorts of petulant poses and angry airs, apparently defying their fate with panache.
As the series goes on and the scratches and blotches get bolder and more colorful, the Steadman boids became more and more fanciful, eventually including such specimens as the Quink, the Lousy Grudgian, the Mottled Splatwink, and the Lesser Peruvian Blue-beaked Blotswerve. No way any of these are going to go extinct, and, absurd as they might seem, I am not sure that they are any more remarkable than his interpretations of boids that used to be actual birds. I never thought I’d see the day when a book on extinction—birds, boids, what have you—would make me laugh out loud!
Steadman’s aviary includes the Orange-beaked One-Wing Jurassic and the White-winged Feathered Dinosaur, protoboids that are, being dinos, extinct by definition. I couldn’t find either of them in Feathered Dinosaurs, but the creatures painted there by Peter Schouten, although in a radically different and neo-realistic style, are hardly any less bizarre and colorful.
I have no idea how accurate or how fanciful these reconstructions are, but I suppose that Schouten’s realizations of that branch of the dinosaurian line that led to modern, er, boids are not that much more speculative than most dinosaur depictions. Most of these feathered dinos are relatively recent discoveries from China--some of them described from a mere few fragments of fossilized bone. That doesn’t seem to have discouraged Schouten and his collaborator, John Long, who give their reasons for imagining how these beasts might actually have looked and behaved.
Steadman’s boids are realized with splatters of ink, patches of color, and Steadman’s wicked wit. Schouten is, by contrast, meticulous. He took a couple of years to create pictures of active, colorful, predatory, displaying protobirds mucking about in the Late Jurassic or Cretaceous. The sequence of the illustrations suggests that, as time went on, the members of this dinosaur line became more and more bird-like, culminating not just in Archaeopteryx but also in Confuciusornis sanctus, the Sacred Confucius Bird.
By the end of the book, these creatures look like outtakes from a Helm or Princeton guide to some lost subcontinent. This volume has been out for a while, but it’s still available. You won’t laugh out loud, but it should evoke a gasp or two, and if you ever run into any of these guys, you might actually be able to use it as a field guide. Protoboiding, perhaps.
- Eric Salzman is a composer, writer, and birder, and the former review editor at Birding. Recordings of his work are on Labor Records/Naxos. His opera "Big Jim & the Small-time Investors" had a workshop in 2012 and is scheduled for production in 2014. He specializes in both birding and boiding from East Quogue, on the south shore of Eastern Long Island.
Salzman, E. 2013. Let's Go Boiding [a review of Extinct Boids, by Ralph Steadman, and of Feathered Dinosaurs, by John Long and Peter Schouten]. Birding 45(2):66.