Thursday, February 20, 2014

Top 10 Fictional Birds Based on Real Birds

Voracious birders tend to look for birds wherever they go, and that includes in fictional sources. For a serious birder, a movie bird is just as much of an opportunity to exercise the ID skills as a legitimate birding trip is. Over the years, movies and video games have included an embarrassing share of "generic" birds that aren't much of anything: usually a boring small passerine, often monochrome. However, a handful of well-known birds in popular culture are probably based on actual species, though it sometimes takes some considerable inference to figure out exactly what. So here is Jon's and my list of Top 10 Fictional Birds Based on Real Birds, in chronological order.

1. Eagles of Manwë from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: Golden eagle (first appearance: 1937)

These giant, mysterious, immensely powerful birds of prey are a sort of deus ex machina in the Middle Earth world, always showing up at exactly the right moment. While they are clearly not actually supposed to be golden eagles - they are much larger, sentient, and exist in a fantasy universe - they are probably based on them. One of the first renditions of the giant birds was painted by Tolkien himself and appeared with the original version of The Hobbit. This illustration clearly resembles a golden eagle, and according to Tolkien's son Christopher, the painting was based on a picture of an immature golden eagle by Archilbald Thorburn. With a bit of digging, we found the original painting.

Left: original illustration of an Eagle of Manwë by J.R.R. Tolkien. Right: the painting on which it's based, a golden eagle by Archibald Thorburn (public domain). Interestingly, Thorburn also produced bird illustrations for William Beebe's books (see entry #9 below).

Subsequent renditions of the giant birds are also consistent with this imagery. The officially licensed "Fell Beast vs. Eagle" diorama shows the bird clearly modeled after a golden, including the diagnostic whitish "ankle" fuzz that all golden eagles have (many eagles' leg feathers stop at the ankles, but goldens have feathers all the way down to the feet). The rendition of these eagles seen in the new Peter Jackson Hobbit films is also consistent with this depiction.

Tolkien, in other writings, implies that these eagles might in fact be Maiar - spirits taking a biological form in order to address some important task on Middle Earth - using a bird-shape. If so, it would make sense that such a powerful creature would choose a form inspired by a golden eagle, as golden eagles are known all over the world as being legendary for their power and majesty.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Greatest Microraptor Swag

This post is devoted to some amazing Microraptor swag I've acquired - as commissions and gifts - since around the holidays. All of the people and companies listed below are definitely worth checking out and are very highly recommended!

First, Rebecca Groom of PalaeoPlushies sent me this INCREDIBLE Microraptor plush Christmas tree ornament. Its arms and legs are kind of posable, so it can glide sprawling or biplane! The remiges are even made out of a kind of iridescent material! And the bell around its neck, omg. IT IS THE CUTEST THING EVER AAAA

Go visit her Etsy store! She is awesome.

Next, this absolutely fantastic field bag was created by Angie T of Miskatonic River Valley Leatherworks and was completed just before Christmas. It is entirely hand-made of real leather and is extremely durable.

The design also features Microraptor, the famous holotype with feather imprints. I am totally in love with this bag and could not be more pleased! Check out Angie’s blog (linked above) if you’re interested in the process details, or if you’re interested in commissioning a custom field bag for yourself.

And lastly, I am now the proud owner of THE COOLEST custom iPhone 5S phone case that ever existed!

This beautiful case was laser-engraved by, which is a quite lovely small business offering a variety of very high-quality real wood phone cases with an option for custom designs. The design is carved on redwood burl wood which has a gorgeous natural grain pattern.

The design is again the famous Microraptor holotype, and more specifically is a stylized vector image created by my partner Jonathan (who is also an absolutely amazing dinosaur poet, so click on his gallery and check it out) in Illustrator. It will eventually be used as part of the cover for our upcoming anti-creationism book!