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Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Story ID:3305
Written by:Gail Lee Martin (bio, contact, other stories)
Organization:Kansas Authors Club
Story type:Family History
Location:El Dorado Kansas USA
Person:Gail Martin
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Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Birds of a Feather Flock Together


I grew up with my mother’s old saying of “birds of a feather flock together” as a guiding rule for judging my acquaintances and friends. But in this day and age I only have to watch the grackles in my back yard or listen to the flock of crows in our pecan tree, to know the truth of Mother’s saying related to birds as well as people. It is even more evident inside my home by looking at the walls covered with birds. Not just any bird but pictures of genuine Mexican Feather Birds. Would you believe eighty seven different ones?! The walls have so many pictures of the birds I scarcely can find space to put up my cherished family pictures.

This little hobby of mine started away back in the mid 1950’s. You could say it was all my parents’ fault. Well it really was! My parents, Clarence and Ruth McGhee, went on a three-week vacation trip to southwest United States. Daddy had worked for the Phillips Petroleum Company as an oil-field pumper since 1924 and had earned that many weeks of vacation. My sisters and I were married, so my parent took what to them must have been a second honeymoon. On their return they proudly showed everyone two lovely pictures they had bought somewhere at a tourist shop.

The pictures were 5-1/2 inches by 11-1/2 inches. One featured a beautiful turquoise bird with a brilliant red breast, a long frilly tail and fluffy crest. This bird also had a striking feathery black eye patch. The bird in the other picture was all red except for the black eye patch, black throat and a splash of black on the wings. These birds were made with feathers, except they had hand-painted eyes, beaks and legs. The rocks and the leaves on the trees were also painted on a black background. My father soon made narrow frames from Kansas-grown cedar and put the birds under glass to protect their feathers.

I must have been very vocal in my admiration of these unique pictures every time we visited my parent. A few years later, after my mother passed away in 1960, Daddy gave the feather birds to me for Christmas. My large family and visiting friends so admired these cherished heirlooms that we tried to find out more about them. We did find the history of an Aztec King who even wore clothes covered with feathers, but we were unable to find anything about the bird or the pictures.

For the past twenty to thirty years Mexican Feather Birds have been flocking to my home on my birthday, Mother’s Day and Christmas. I have received all sizes of these pictures from my son and five daughters; from my two sisters and many friends. They have found them at garage sales, flea markets and Coin and Gun shows in the Baltimore, Maryland area; In Danville, Illinois; New Orleans and all around Kansas.

On the backs of some of the pictures is a short history or story of Mexican feather craft. These relate, “even before the Spaniards conquered Mexico in 1521, feather craft was already an ancient art. The Tarascan Indians of Michoacan made hummingbird capes for their kings.” To this day, their old capital city is named Tzintzuntzan or the hummingbird.

Birds have always been prominent in Aztec mythology and Mexican history. An eagle perched on a cactus, devouring a snake, is the design of the present official seal. This fulfilled the Aztec prophecy for the establishment of their capital on the present site of Mexico City. Hernando Cortes, the Spanish conqueror, spoke admiringly of the ’feathered jewels’ of the Aztec.

The feather bird art requires great skill, imagination, a lot of patience and an artistic touch to recapture the glamour of the millions of exotic birds as colorful and charming as their multicolored ancestors. The finished picture vividly recalls the dynamic color and haunting songs of the birds that lived and sang in the ancient forest of Mexico so long ago.

It is a slow process to dress up a paper pattern, starting with the tiniest feathers for the head and gradually increasing in feather size as the body is completed and finishing with the largest feathers forming the magnificent tail.

Although the feathers of the wild fowl are no longer used, the tradition is still being followed today. My sister, Carol who lives in Texas, took a trip to old Mexico in 1989 and brought me a feather bird picture that was being made right there in the souvenir shop. It has multicolored brown feathers with pale blue and white feathers on the breast area. This bird has the distinctive black eye patch and solid black neck color that so many of the birds have. The background leaves or just mere varicolored daubs. My son made a light colored wooden frame to compliment this one of a kind birthday gift.

A few of my dazzling birds are recognizable, even to my untrained eye. Heading the list would be the ‘good luck birds’, the peacock and his mate, the peahen. Also the male and female Bird of Paradise are often depicted. The rest are so exotic they make me envious of Cortes. A few of the birds in my collection are placed under glass in the bottom of oval and rectangle wicker trays of various sizes. Besides being decorative they are very useful and are always a great topic of conversation.

The majority of the pictures are in hand-carved cedar frames that are as traditional as the birds themselves. The distinctive carved patterns are repeated in frame after frame with at least five or six different patterns in my almost one ninety picture collection. Now and then I found the pictures in just plain narrow, black frames with a thin, gold stripe. One of these, an extra large one, survived a New Orleans’s hurricane and was given to friends of ours, the Richey's who lived down there then, as a thank you for helping the family clean up the mess. On the Richey’s return to Kansas in 1976, Elsie saw my collection. That’s when they decided their picture would make a perfect Christmas present for my husband and me. They were so right!

I noticed the background paintings were also divided into two or three different styles. I have only one pair that has an artist’s name on them. Glenn F. Bastian is stamped on the back and his initials are prominently displayed on the front. The background of flowers are much more realistically painted than any of the other pictures.

In my collection is a set of four feather bird advertising calendars prints matted with red or turquoise felt-like paper. These were from the 1940s but it was so early in my collecting career that I was stupid enough to cut off the calendars and advertising. That definitely affects their monetary value. Other oddities that I have includes a feather bird Christmas card and a tiny 2 by 3-inch Mother’s Day gift card received from my daughter Cindy when she and her family lived in Illinois.

I’m sure this collection has more value to me as the collector than to anybody else. Since they can be found at such a variety of places and so cheaply, the Mexican Feather Birds seem to have been a passing fad to the American people in the fifties.

As Margaret Aspegren stated in her article “The Joys & Pitfalls of Collecting” (Kanhistiqic Magazine, February, 1982): “The hobbyists who gain the most from their hobby are probably not the ones who collect for profit but for the love of the item sought.” Margaret describes me perfectly. It is impossible to portray my feelings each time I see a different Mexican Feather Bird picture at a garage sale and then discover the price is only fifty cents. WOW!

Photo #1 Gail & one wall of her collection.
Photo #2 Single Mexican Feather Bird
Photo #3 The pair of Glenn F. Bastian pictures