Hot Out of the Kiln: Great Horned Owl

March 18, 2014

My first Great Horned Owl feather is done! It was a challenge to figure out how to capture the incredible softness of an owl's feather in an incredibly hard medium like glass. If you've ever been fortunate enough to hold an owl feather and look closely at it, you will notice that they have a texture unlike that of other feathers. A typical feather's surface is very smooth and aerodynamic-looking. By contrast, an owl's feather has a great deal of surface texture, almost suede-like or fuzzy. In addition, the edges of each feather are somewhat fringed; I can only assume that these adaptations in texture help the owl to fly silently as it hunts for its big-eared and sensitive prey.


I've only seen an owl hunting once; it was at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where I frequently can be found doing volunteer work as a caver and as the curatorial assistant for the park's art and photography collection. One summer evening I walked down to the Natural Entrance long after all the visitors had left for the night (volunteers are often allowed to stay on-site in cabins at the park, so we have after-hours access to some areas). Since it was summer, the evening bat flight was still going on, and since it was quite dark, I was able to hear the bats more than I could see them.


Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of movement that was larger and lighter than any bat. I almost thought I'd imagined it, until it happened again a few minutes later and I realized what I was seeing: a large owl was catching bats on the wing as they were leaving the cave. What a sight! I knew that birds of prey sometimes hung around bat roosts at dusk, waiting for their chance to grab an easy snack. I felt very fortunate to be able to watch it happen.


I used multiple layers of frit powder and refired the feather several times to get just the right shade of brown, with the creamy edging of the real thing. Coldworking the surface to give it a dappled effect was the final touch. I'm pretty happy with this one, and look forward to refining the process as I make more of these. There's a kind of magic in a feather, though I am still thinking about what and why.

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