Reprinted from The EnvironMentor, vol. 9 no. 3, pp. 9-10
Long ago, the old folks say, all the birds had white feathers. Plain white! Like swans! Very pretty, right?
But very dangerous. The birds showed up like crumpled paper trash when they sat in the grass or roosted in the trees. Any hungry cat or fox could spot them from far away. Hiding was almost impossible.
Identical white feathers also made trouble at mating time. Finding a mate of the correct species was difficult when they all looked alike from a polite distance, differing only by size and perhaps the presence of a crest or long tail.
So the birds had an idea. They went to Owl, whose shop sold paints and dyes of all colors. “Please help us to paint ourselves in different designs and colors!”
Owl reluctantly agreed to free paint jobs, but insisted that the offer was only good for one week.
The birds flocked to Owl's shop. Eastern bluebird chose a reddish vest with a blue back. Robin liked the rusty vest but preferred a brown back. Meadowlark chose a yellow vest! Bluejay took a whole variety of shades of blue. Cardinal outdid them all in shades of red. (You can continue to describe local birds that your listeners should recognize.)
Crow watched while his friends flew off with their new, colorful plumages. “That's too gaudy. That one is too dull.” He found fault with every choice.
At last, as the free time was running out on the last day, Crow realized he'd better hurry. “Okay, Owl, I want black white and grey like Mockingbird.” Owl started to paint him. 'No, wait. That's too drab. Give me a yellow vest like Meadowlark.” Owl reached for the yellow. “No, not yellow. How about some red as bright as Cardinal?”
Owl slapped on layer after layer of paint as Crow kept changing his mind. In the rush as the time ran out, Crow knocked over a big can of black paint. It covered Crow completely! Now it was too late to get any other colors.
So ever since, Crows have had black feathers. (Although, if you see them in bright sunlight, you can see rainbows of other colors shining through.)
And ever since, Crows have held a grudge against Owls, blaming them for the botched paint job. Owls try to hide during the day to avoid the crows, who will often mob and pester a sleeping owl if they find one. And now you know “why”.
Folktale source: “Owl's Paint Shop” pp 3-4 Folktales from the Japanese Countryside told by Hiroko Fujita, edited/adapted by Fran Stallings
This traditional tale originally featured Japanese birds and said that kami-sama (one of the Shinto deities) ordered Owl to paint them. I substituted familiar American birds, and had them convince Owl to donate the free paint jobs.
I guess the traditional teaching centered on Crow's vanity and procrastination. However, this story provides young scientists with an awareness of the different birds' plumage, and lets them raise questions about how the final colors might provide a mating or survival advantage.
To illustrate this story, I made props I had learned from Fujita-san. Copying from a field guide to birds, I sketched Robin, Blue Bird, Meadow Lark, Blue Jay, Cardinal, Bald Eagle, and Crow on white paper and glued each to light cardboard (backing from pads of paper). I colored my sketches with markers, then taped a sheet of transparent plastic (do you remember overhead projectors?) over the picture, taping the two long sides and one short side. I used black Sharpie on the plastic to trace the outlines of each bird sketch. Then I trimmed 1/4” off one long side of a sheet of white card stock, and rounded the corners, so that it would be easier to insert between the plastic and the colored sketch. Optional: a tape tab on the card stock, to make it easier to pull out again.
With the white card in place, all you see is black outlines on white. When volunteers hold up all these pictures, the birds are indeed hard to tell apart! Blue Jay and Cardinal both have crests on their heads; Robin and Blue Bird don't look much different from Meadow Lark and Crow. (Eagle stands out due to size and glaring expression.) No wonder they had trouble finding mates!
At Owl's paint shop when I pull out the plain white card and reveal the color beneath, it looks like magic. Viewers of all ages are astonished and delighted.
Facts: Many of our birds have migrated south for the winter, but the ones that stay here (or have migrated here from further north) are a good reason to put out bird feeders so that we can watch them and learn to recognize them by their distinctive plumages.
There are excellent field guides in book form (we keep one by the window) and now online. Offer a variety of foods: not just seeds, but also fruit and fat (lard, peanut butter etc) to appeal to a variety of birds. How many kinds can you see?