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  • Andrea Durnell

Who Flew the Coop?




More birds have flown my coop over the decades than I can count (or have photographed). They are challenging animals to anthropomorphize because they lack some movable parts


to create expressions! Their beaks and eyes remain the same no matter what they are thinking and they don't have cheeks that can be used to change their expression. So they need more accessories to explain their story and I will often use a head tilt to imply their mood. I take some liberties when painting their eyes in order to imbue them with some humanizing traits that people will pick up on. Two of my favorite bird stories are for Tilda Ignatius, my turkey vulture and for Elgas Crane.

Elgas Crane

Elgas Crane’s story begins when I was very young living in Valier, Montana at the edge of Lake Francis on the eastern slopes of the northern Rocky Mountains. He is named for a family friend, Bob Elgas, who was an ornithologist and wildlife painter for Audubon magazine in the 1960s. Bob was researching the migration patterns of an Arctic goose named after him and used to land his biplane on the lake on his way north to follow them. Bob had a bird sanctuary where he conducted his studies and took in native and non-native wildlife, mostly birds. On one notable visit to the sanctuary we arrived to find Bob, a tall, gangly redhead in the pasture dancing with a tall redheaded crane. We learned that they were practicing the crane’s mating dance. I was about six years old and this really stuck in my head. Bob was remarkable in a lot of ways. His sense of humor was wry and his illustrations of birds were exquisite with details. He inspired my lifelong interest in the life of birds although my interests developed in a far less scholarly manner. When Elgas Crane’s piece of wood presented itself, it really couldn’t have been anything but a crane and there could never be another crane for me other than Bob Elgas’ crane. I built a little bit of Bob’s story into Elgas Crane. His shirt is a loud color because, even though Bob was a very accomplished and serious wildlife painter, he was completely color blind and his very talented and amusing wife chose all his paints and helped him create his colors. She dressed him in loud shirts regularly just because it was funny and he never knew. (actually I think he did know and just rolled with it)

I dressed Elgas as an aviator in honor of Bob and also the migratory nature of birds. He carries a map bag to help him navigate the globe. Now he has landed with you and has adopted you as his new caretakers. I hope his story continues to grow with you as your crane!

Tilda Ignatius got her last name from the little town of St. Ignatius in western Montana which I passed through recently. She is a turkey vulture and that inspired her profession. Tilda is a "watcher woman". This was not always a paid profession but was one that a widowed woman would have been allowed to have. Watchers waited at the bedside of the dying patient, making sure there were no breath sounds or heartbeat before they were officially pronounced dead. Everyone wanted a "good" death, but occasionally mistakes were made, which is why a bell might have been attached above a recently covered grave with a string leading down into the coffin in case there was a bell ringer. Tilda has a few bells with her, just in case, and because the watcher also sometimes prepared the body for burial, Tilda has some nice smelling spices in her bag.


One fun fact about vultures is that they pee down their legs to keep themselves cool! I guess it is plausible for Tilda to be a little incontinent assuming she is older and had a lot of chicks in her prime!

Under Tilda's many layers of clothing is a piece of a bustle from an 1890's dress. I kept it

intact including the horse hair stuffing because it is shaped like a turkey tail!

Her bodice is made from sackcloth with an oil lantern pattern on it because I imagine she

had to "burn the midnight oil".

I made her skirt of very rough wool cut from an antique horse blanket, assuming she would not have had the income for finer garments.


I posted about 45 photos of my birds on Facebook this morning if you would like to see more of my birds. https://www.facebook.com/VillageFolkByAndreaDurnell




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