Boat-billed Heron (Cochlearius cochlearius): Barry Kent MacKay

lthough this is one of my favourite birds, I have only so far painted it once, as a miniature painting, really a study, in mixed media.   This recently completed painting is approximately life-sized.  They are about the size of a night-heron or a large crow, weighing in around 600 grams or nearly a pound and a half.  They eat a wide variety of live food, including fish, amphibians, snakes, lizards, large insects, eggs, crabs and other aquatic life.   These birds are found from southern Mexico south into tropical South America, both along the coasts, where they favour mangroves, and in wooded swamps and wetlands throughout the interior.   Their population has been estimated to be as low as half a million to as many as five or six million.  

All other members of the heron family, Ardeidae, over sixty species including bitterns and egrets, have long, sharply pointed beaks, but none have anything like the wide, massive beak of the aptly-named Boat-billed Heron.  In fact, it is so strange that it has been put into a family of its own, but I think the general consensus now is that it is, indeed, a true heron.   As you might guess from its large eyes, the species is, like the night-herons it somewhat resembles, mostly nocturnal.  Like night-herons it makes a twiggy nest, often in loose colonies, thus classified as “semi-colonial”. Normal clutch sizes are from two to four eggs, pale bluish in colour.

The birds in the painting are from Belize, on the east coast of Central America. In 1973 Robert W. Dickerman (1926 – 2015), an American ornithologist, determined that the birds from that region were subtly different from those in other parts of their range, and named them, as a distinct subspecies, after Allan R. Phillips (1914 – 1996), an American ornithologist who, like Dickerman himself, was famous for his study of subspecies and geographical variations in birds.  I met Phillips when I was young and somewhat discouraged that illness, (encephalitis, a disease Dickerman himself had studied as an expert in virology) had deprived me of a chance to become a full-fledged ornithologist myself.  Phillips was gruff, outspoken and defensive of the subspecies concept (put simply, a subspecies is a group of organisms within a species that in ways often very slight differ from the others, but not enough to stop viable hybridization where ranges overlap), but that meant he was treating me more like a peer, for which I was extremely grateful. He did not “talk down” to me at all and we got along well.  I’ve dedicated the painting to his memory. 

The painting is in oils on birch panel and is 24 by 18 inches.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

Purchase, print, product info:

31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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