3 Things Nature Artists Need to Remember About Social Media

Earlier this month, our dog Dory killed an immature desert cottontail rabbit. In the past, I’ve felt despondent over these little yard deaths. Even though I know these animals do not live long and many of them die young to feed the coyotes, foxes, and owls, I was still sad. This time, however, I did something besides leaving it in the tall grass to return to dust: I drew it. Documenting what I saw seemed like a kindness. Instead of treating this life as a throw-away, taking the time to really look at it and record it in my sketchbook honored the short life it had. I suppose it doesn’t help the rabbit any; it’s still dead. But it helped me to accept the death, and to feel that the rabbit’s life wasn’t negligible.

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Sketches of an immature desert cottontail (drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

Thanks to the drawing class I took in May, my drawing came out really well, so I shared it on Facebook with a group interested in nature journaling. The responses I got really surprised me and taught me some important things to remember about social media.

1) Context is critical.

Someone thought this rabbit was a rare or endangered hare and that I had let my dog run loose in its habitat. That person lives in California. I live in Colorado. Perhaps it’s rare in California, but the desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) is abundant in the neighborhood where I live. This little rabbit lives fast and dies young; few individuals live beyond two years, and they reproduce like, well, rabbits, in order to make up for it. Adult females can have up to four litters in one year and females born in the spring can have their first litter before the end of their first summer! It’s hard to imagine how a place wouldn’t be overrun with these guys.

Also, Dory caught this rabbit in our fenced-in back yard, which is the only place she goes off leash. I wouldn’t dream of taking her for a hike in a park or natural area off-leash. I am determined to keep any wildlife in the area safe from her (she thinks she’s a wolf) and her safe from the wildlife (she only weighs 13 pounds).

2) People can speak with authority and still be wrong.

I was told rather bluntly this animal was a hare, not a rabbit. I hadn’t thought about the difference, so I was grateful someone brought it up. One person insisted rabbits are domestic (raised and bred in captivity) and hares wild. Another argued that hares are from Britain, and rabbits from America. Curious as to who was right, I went through the books* in my house looking for an answer.

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Desert cottontail (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

The “experts” were wrong. The animal I drew is definitely a rabbit not a hare. There are two main differences between rabbits and hares, but they are not the ones I was given. Physically, hares have longer ears and longer hind legs than rabbits. (Despite their name, jackrabbits are actually hares, which unfortunately confuses the issue.) Another way to tell them apart is based on their reproductive strategies. Rabbits bear naked, blind (altricial) young while hares have fully-furred, open-eyed (precocial) young. This difference means baby hares can move around and eat vegetation as soon as they are born, while baby rabbits are initially helpless.

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Black-tailed jackrabbit, which is actually a hare; check out those ears and hind legs! (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

I am glad someone challenged me on this, because it made me educate myself. But it also reminded me I can’t take someone else’s word for these things. I have to verify what they’ve said.

3) Not everyone agrees on what is acceptable to draw.

Some people were shocked and disgusted that I would draw a dead animal. I should have seen this one coming, right? But I didn’t. I thought people who were interested in spending time outdoors drawing wildlife would understand that, for an artist, a natural death is an opportunity to see details close up and record them. Historically, naturalists collected their specimens with guns and traps, then identified or described the species after the fact, when they could easily examine the animal close-up. While I would never kill anything for this reason, I have spent time drawing skulls and taxidermy in order to learn more about the animals I’m interested in.

I’m not alone. Some artists did chime in, saying that they also drew the dead birds and animals they found in their yard. But there were a few who responded with a short and clear “yuck”. In the same way, there are people who do not want to see your drawings of nude models, so it might be better to post a questionable image in the comments and include a warning in the main post out of consideration for others.

Have you ever gotten an unexpected response to a Facebook post? What did you learn from it?

*References used for this article:

  • The American Heritage Dictionary. Fifth Edition, 2011.
  • Fisher, Chris, Don Pattie and Tamara Hartson. Mammals of the Rocky Mountains. Lone Pine Publishing, 2000, p. 244.
  • Halfpenny, James C., and Elisabeth A. Biesiot. A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America. Johnson Printing Company, 1986, p. 46.
  • Burton, Maurice and Robert Burton, editors. The International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1969

Multi-Basking: Layering Interests Increases Drawing Pleasure

Last week, I went to a local natural area so I could draw the prairie dogs that live there. I’ve wanted to do this for years, but haven’t felt able to tackle the task until now. The online drawing class I took in May (Roz Stendahl’s Drawing Practice: Drawing Live Subjects in Public ) prepared me well. I knew what to take, I was comfortable drawing in public, and I didn’t let my moving subjects frustrate me. While the class is responsible for the success of my trip, it was multi-basking that made it such a wonderful experience.

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

When I arrived at Coyote Ridge Natural Area, it was almost ten in the morning. Afraid that I was too late to see any prairie dogs, I was relieved to find that they were busy feeding and watching for danger. To my delight, there was also a pair of burrowing owls. (I love their grumpy expressions.) Burrowing owls use abandoned prairie dog burrows as nests and I’ve seen them before in really large prairie dog towns. I hadn’t realized that the local colony was big enough to support them.

I set up my folding seat on the gravel path that runs along one edge of the prairie dog town and sat down to sketch. I watched both the prairie dogs and the owls. The owls sat fairly still, making them excellent subjects to draw, but the prairie dogs were often closer and easier to see. As I sketched, meadowlarks and horned larks sang nearby. Occasionally, hikers would pass behind me. A few even stopped to ask what I was looking at and I took a moment to talk with them.

The owls spent their time between two different mounds, which I assumed were the front and back doors of their burrow. At one point, a prairie dog came quite close to one mound. The owl standing watch dove at him, wings spread and beak open. The owl kept up the attack until the prairie dog had scurried away. The interaction left me wondering why the owl was so defensive. Do prairie dogs eat owl eggs? Or was the owl aggressive due to the higher hormones that go with breeding season?

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A few of the quick sketches I drew at Coyote Ridge. (Drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

When I left an hour later, I was feeling elated. Part of my joy came from the excitement of finally getting to draw prairie dogs at Coyote Ridge. Part of it was due to the pleasant surprise of getting to draw burrowing owls as well. But I soon realized there was much more to it than that.

The reason I felt so happy and fulfilled by a simple hour of drawing was because I’d managed to smoosh so many interests* into one activity. My main goal was to draw, but I made it richer by drawing live animals outdoors in a natural setting. I combined my love of the outdoors, my love of animals, my love of learning, and my love of teaching with my love of drawing. I learned some things I didn’t know and came away with questions I’d like to answer. I talked to strangers and helped educate them a little about the animals of the prairie. And of course, I got to draw and spend time watching the animals do their thing.

It seemed like a type of multi-tasking, only more effective and more fun. I was really multi-basking — letting myself enjoy many different things all at the same time. I recommend it highly.

Do you ever multi-bask? What activities or interests do you find go together well?

*”Smooshing interests” is a strategy discussed in How To Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want To Be When They Grow Up by Emilie Wapnick.

A Day in the Rockies: Big Mammals

And I don’t mean people. We had phenomenal luck, helped by the fact that we were on the road early and spent a long day (12 hours) in the mountains. The first thing we saw were Big Horn Sheep, right by the road. I was on the wrong side of the car, but still got a decent look as well as a few pictures. (Thank you, zoom lens.)

Big horn sheep, right by the road
Another sheep, just up the hill from us

Later, as we were hiking into Long Lake, everyone we passed kept telling us to look for the moose. They were “just ahead”, “not that far” and “right on the trail”.  We had chosen the Long Lake hike because a gentle quarter-mile walk brings you to the lake and meadow surrounding it, with a great view of the stream and surrounding mountains. But our wild moose chase turned the walk into something more like a mile hike, which Mom and Dad found especially difficult because, as Dad noticed more than once, “They need more oxygen up here.”

He was really really really big. If it weren't for the drop off between us, he would have been too close, too.

Totally by chance, I got the best look at the moose, and possibly the best picture. The others were still coming up the trail when I was thinking “Man, is he BIG” and pushing the button. One of the other people who was nearby and taking pictures got a little too close, and the moose decided to move off. Fortunately, he headed down the trail towards my family, so that  they got to see him as he walked through a meadow and into the forest.

Disgusted moose heading into the woods

Having seen two of the big mammals of the mountains, Kurt and I wanted to score a third — elk. We see them all the time when we are in the Estes Park area, so we were hopeful. But despite staying later than planned and driving into more remote parts of Rocky Mountain National Park, the best we could do was a mule deer.

We didn't see her until we got out of the car...

At least she had the decency to be right in the parking lot where we couldn’t miss her.

Tomorrow: a little little wildlife.