Bird Presidents #20: James A. Guineafowl

James A. Guineafowl

Few birds in our history have ever obtained the Presidency by planning to obtain it.
~ James A. Guineafowl

James A. Garfield; the guineafowl, which apparently tastes like chicken.

It’s been a bit of a haitus for presidential birds lately as I’ve gotten myself distracted by other things, but here we are again, and it’s nice to be back in the habit, though I sort of wish I’d done this one before I took a break to give my wrist time to recover.

I learn something from every bird I draw, and what I learned from this one is NEVER DRAW A DAMN GUINEAFOWL. Oh, it’s terrible, all those wee negative-space white dots everywhere. Nothing but dots and a tiny bald head. Nice bird to look at but next time I’m just taking a photo.

Garfield, for his part, went and got himself shot a few months into his first term and lingered the better part of another three months before finally shuffling off the ol’ coil. I was at his memorial in Cleveland last summer, by whatever odd chance, where I also pointedly touched Eliot Ness’s memorial because I am a scamp.

But! One of Garfield’s big legacy achievements (with some post-mortem followthrough from Chester A. Arthur) was cleaning up the Post Office! Yes, he cleaned house on some serious postal corruption, apparently. Finished the job that Grant sorta kinda started and then Hayes started some more. You don’t clean a post office quickly.

Happy Bird Presidents Day

What better day to put together an anthology of my ongoing Bird Presidents project than Bird Presidents Day?

I’ve been drawing these for a few weeks now, ever since I knocked out Theodore Crowsevelt as what I thought at the time was a one-off joke, and now I’m just about halfway done with the series with #1-19 (and Teddy at #27) done already. I’ve been pretty happy with the results so far and feel like I’m actually developing my drawing a bit in the process (not to mention learning a bit about birds and human presidents).

So: here’s a bunch of bird presidents. I’ve posted each of these as a blog entry with a bit more info about the respective bird and president and notes on my process, so if you want more detail go ahead and click on the name above a given image.

Bird Presidents

#1: Grebe Washington
Grebe Washington

#2: Guan Adams
Guan Adams

#3: Ptarmigan Jefferson
03 Ptarmigan Jefferson
Continue reading “Happy Bird Presidents Day”

Bird Presidents #19: Rutherford B. Hawk

Rutherford B Hawk

Let me triumph as a bird or not at all.
~ Rutherford B. Hawk

Rutherford B. Hayes; the red-tailed hawk, one of a big variety of birds that fall under the “hawk” label but one which I’ve always especially liked for some reason.

This one goes out to my good friend rtha, for reasons.

Hayes got into office under contended circumstances; there was significant dispute over electoral votes in 1876, and ultimately the whole mess might have gone either way and by sheer count of non-disputed electoral votes was weighted heavily toward Samuel J. Tilden before it was finally resolved with Hayes taking the big chair and a bunch of compromises made on the whole Reconstruction situation. Woo, politics!

Also apparently he was big on the gold standard, so once Ron Paul gets out of the game maybe folks can re-animate Hayes at try and get him to run again.

Bird Presidents #18: Ulysses S. Grouse

Ulysses S. Grouse

I don’t underrate the value of military knowledge, but if birds make war in slavish obedience to the rules, they will fail.
~ Ulysses S. Grouse

Ulysses S. Grant; the grouse, a bird of order Galliformes, which I think we can all agree is the order of birds Doctor Who would be of if he were a bird.

Grant! He’s the one with the tomb that he’s in, or so I hear. And he did a pretty bang-up job with the Union forces under his control in the Civil War, by all accounts. But his presidency apparently involved a generous helping of corruption scandals, though perhaps it’s up in the air whether that’s because of any corruption on his part or just an inability to spot and/or effectively deal with corruption among his administration. Politics not being a shooting fight most of the time, and all that?

Also, at one point in 1862, he decided to just straight up kick all of the Jews out of his military district, which, hrm. Lincoln said no, apparently.

Bird Presidents #17: Kagu Johnson

Kagu Johnson

I’m an avian! I glory in it; I am an avian. The birds — yes, the birds of the United States have made me what I am…
~ Kagu Johnson

Andrew Johnson; the kagu, whose reaction to Cocoa Puffs is not apparently documented.

“Kagu” for Andrew is a bit of a stretch, as was “auklet”, but I decided the kagu looked like a bit more fun to draw and so here we are. Look at that crazy head plumage! I didn’t really do the feathery mess justice but you at least get the idea. (“Antwren” would have been a bit more on the nose in terms of morphological similarity to Andrew, but have you seen the antwren? It just looks like a wren. Which looks like a billion other wrens and such. Creative license justified in this case I think.)

Johnson got the job as Lincoln’s second Vice President, a role in which it seems like he found himself through a mix of political convenience (a steadfastly pro-Union man but of Southern heritage and popular with Southern whites, right as the Civil War was starting to look like it might be ending and some sort of reconstruction of the country would be the business of Lincoln’s second term) and a fair amount of effort on his own part to put himself at the top of the VP ballot in 1864. And then, of course, Lincoln got shot a few weeks later. The whole presidency thing didn’t go stunningly after that.

But I learned two things about Andrew Johnson while putting this one together, both of which allegedly involve booze!

1. His Vice Presidential inaugural address was delivered the morning after a night of partying, and possibly after a bit of hungover pre-gaming, and so was sort of rambling and incoherent and terrible. Maybe he had the flu? Maybe he was just actually drunk? Sands of time, we’ll probably never know, but in any case the quote here is a section from that apparently deeply embarrassing speech, and not really the least flattering bit.

2. When Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, it was part of an apparent conspiracy to take out not just the head honcho but also vice honcho Johnson and honcho-of-State William Seward. Seward survived his injuries; Lincoln, not so much; but Johnson came out unscathed entirely, not because his attacker was a poor shot or anything like that but because said would-be assassin instead spent the fateful evening getting mad crunk at the hotel bar and then wandering around the streets of D.C.

So it’s kind of a wash with Johnson and booze.

Bird Presidents #16: Albatross Lincoln

Albatross Lincoln

Slavery is founded in the selfishness of birdkind’s nature — opposition to it, in his love of justice.
~ Albatross Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln; the albatross, no known subspecies of which wears a beard and hat but there may at this late date be things yet beyond the ken of avian science.

What would I write about Abe Lincoln? You know about him. I had to skim through pages and pages and pages of quotes looking for which one to use; he has a bigger wikipedia footprint than probably the ten preceding presidents combined. Civil War. Great Emancipator. Shot to death at (spoiler alert) the theater. It’s Lincoln. There’s a movie out.

To that point, actually, this one has actually had me a little nervous — you could say it’s been a bit of an albatross, ho ho ho &c. — because people know Lincoln. He’s got popular iconography. The beard! The hat! The beardless chin, sometimes! Even people who can’t draw a map to the gas station can draw you something on a napkin that everyone else at the bar will recognized as Honest Abe.

So there’s a kind of pressure here that’s was’t there with e.g. Moorhen Van Buren. “Oh, I can’t wait to see how you do the moorhen,” has said exactly no one to date. And I recognize I’m being neurotic but that doesn’t make the neurosis go away, and it actually gave me some pause this morning when I sat down to work on it, like: what if it’s not good enough? What if it’s not Lincolnian enough? What if the little hat I draw on the bird doesn’t look just so?


I have been recently reading a small book called Art & Fear, on the suggestion of my immensely talented internet friend Brad “Brad Sucks” Turcotte, and it’s very good and in part about exactly this sort of thing. And the main lesson I have taken so far from it is to shut up and just do a thing, which is a policy I’ve always endorsed but not so consistently applied so it is nice to be reminded of it by a sensible book by smart people.

And so, here it is: a drawing of Lincoln as a bird that I just shut up and did, and it’s good enough (I don’t actually dislike it) and I can now move on to president number 17 in the series instead of sitting around worrying myself to death about whether this one is The Best Lincoln Bird I Could Possibly Make. Forward progress, momentum, iterating on a useful form! That’s the ticket.

Also, on a personal note, my strongest association with “albatross” is neither the bird nor the metaphorical weight but the giant flying fortress thing that you had to beat at the end of Bionic Commando right before your final confrontation with Resurrected Hitler. It was hard to blow up Hitler in his helicopter, but beating the Albatross first was definitely harder.

Bird Presidents #15: Blue Jay Buchanan

Blue Jay Buchanan

Sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I am in leaving it, you are a happy bird indeed.
~ Blue Jay Buchanan

James Buchanan; the blue jay, which I guess we don’t see a lot of here in Portland though there are plenty of scrub jays around. It’s a bird, it’s blue, good enough.

James Buchanan completes the hat trick of consecutive presidents about whom the key thing seems to be Boy They Were Terrible; he was the last president prior to the Civil War and managed to not do such a great job of preventing it. (And apparently remarked more than once in a panic that “I am the last President of the United States!”, which, hey, how about a little optimism, man.)

He also had some pretty great hair, which I tried to reflect (along with a not so subtle allegorical nod to a breaking of the nation beyond his ability to prevent or repair) in the drawing.

Bird Presidents #14: Penguin Pierce

Penguin Pierce

And now war! war, in its direst shape — war, on a scale of a million birds in arms — rages in several States of the Union…
~ Penguin Pierce

Franklin Pierce; the penguin, of which this is a king rather than an emperor, not that that’s any less problematically monarchistic for an ostensibly presidential bird.

Franklin Pierce manages somehow to be the president who is worse than Fillmore, which is something I guess; it may be that he was just the wrong president at a very difficult time in presidential history (and it does feel a bit like everybody leading up to Lincoln was in the difficult place of being Not Lincoln, especially as seen from the long late view where Lincoln himself is held in such high general esteem as a mythic presidential figure), but in any case nobody seems to remember him and those who do don’t seem to have a lot of praise for his administrative legacy. A legacy defined in significant part by functionally pro-Confederacy, pro-slavery politics? Fun.

But he was also allegedly a nice enough guy as just a guy, and he struggled with alcoholism and that maybe ruined his marriage and also all of his kids died young, which is pretty terrible stuff to have to deal with so, hmm. Historical figures I’m not deeply familiar with: they’re complicated.

Don’t feel like I did a great job of communicating the specular highlighting on his back and the top of his wing — my tendency with pen strokes and hatching seems to run kind of counter to that sort of effect. Have to think about how to approach that sort of thing, or maybe avoid wet black birds.

Also I accidentally threw an apostrophe on a possessive its and smudged the ink near the feet a little bit when trying to erase some pencil marks. It’s hard out there for a bird presidentizer.

Bird Presidents #13: Mallard Fillmore

Mallard Fillmore

May God save the country, for it is evident that the birds will not.
~ Mallard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore; the mallard, which is apparently the genetic Ur-duck from which all other ducks descended? According to a brief gloss of Wikipedia, anyway.

I feel like the water works much better here, in a less-is-more way, than what I did on Grebe Washington, though that was running with a reference painting that didn’t have glassy open water going on in the first place so a straight across comparison doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

I have an stronger-than-usual sense of connection to both the duck and the president; as a Millard, I’ve heard every “mallard” reference out there, and being able to trot out “oh yeah well a PRESIDENT has MY last name as a first name but still” seemed like some pretty sweet ammo to be able to pull out in an argument in grade school.

But yeah, this is probably the bird I’d have been most able to do a decent job of without a reference. Especially if these were in color — you can’t go far wrong just getting that bold green head plumage on a duck-shaped blob with feathers.

Pres. Fillmore’s first name is pronounced differently than my last name, though, so I don’t really appreciate the connection that much these days. Also? Apparently not a particularly awesome president. Whatever I do with my life, I hope not to end up dead on Wikipedia with a line like “He is consistently included in the bottom 10 of historical rankings of Presidents of the United States.” in the abstract. Ouch. And his last words were saying that the soup he was eating when he died was pretty good.

And the less said about Mallard Fillmore the newspaper cartoon the better; “ugh” seems like it should suffice. Ugh? Yes, that’ll do.

Bird Presidents sketch: Teddy Crowsevelt detail

I’ve been thinking about how to better capture the sense of Theodore Roosevelt in bird form ever since I took my initial, series-inspiring stab at Crowsevelt a week and a half ago, and this was a quick attempt tonight to get closer.

Crowsevelt detail

Conclusion: it’s just goddam hard to put a moustache on an anatomically realistic bird. A beak’s not just a nose or a mouth for a crow, it’s both, and so a moustache as something that goes between the two is hard to bolt on in a way that doesn’t look ridiculous. This feels like it came off sort of handlebar, which is not how I think of Teddy’s as looking.

The suit helps a bit but is also pretty silly. Hard to say what to do there. I’m not really interested in pushing into full-on anthropomorphic caricature at the moment — just doing reasonably good-looking realistic ink drawings of birds is enough of a challenge and a reward for now and that would be a whole other thing — so I think I should just run with what I’ve got going on already and revisit this question later if I’m still interested in birdly pols after plowing through the whole POTUS canon.

The original Theo drawing, for reference:

Theodore Crowsevelt

There it looked like the moustache was a bit of debris he was carrying to his nest-in-progress. Which makes a bit more sense than a biker stache, honestly. But I feel like I’ve gotten stronger with the bird renderings since then, which is gratifying. I don’t know why I’ve drawn so little in the last few years.