Over on deviantART I joined an art project called Losing Altitude. The project is a collaborate art book both celebrating the beauty of, and raising awareness about the plight of, endangered birds. You can hear more about it and see some of the work by contributing artists by peeking at the Kickstarter.
Over 50 artists from varying backgrounds were involved in this project. As with most art collabs I’ve been involved in, that majority of the art was drawn, though there were a few of us repping the artisan crafts community. Given that I’m an absolute novice at digital art, I of course turned to my strengths. I contributed two pieces to the project, both of them endangered native species. The first was a papercraft of the Helmeted Honeyeater. The second was this cake.
Raptorial birds have always been amongst my favourite critters. I seem to have a fierce love of top order predators in general, but there’s so much to love about them. I’ll spend some time telling you all about these guys, why they’re endangered and how you can help. Then I’ll talk about how I made the cake.
The Australian masked owls are divided into four very closely related species, each of which has several colour morphs. The Tasmanian masked owl (Tyto novaehollandiae spp. castanops) is most often the darker chestnut morph. The males can sometimes be the paler, intermediate morph, which is the type I chose to depict. The Tasmanian species is also much larger than the mainland species, with females weighing around 1.25kg — 50% more than the mainland lady owls and twice as heavy as the mainland males. As the name suggests, this species is only found in Tasmania.
Their names comes from the flattened heart-shaped faces, presumably resembling a mask. Their face shape isn’t all about good looks, however, it actually works as a sound-receiving device. Like much of Australian wildlife, it’s adorably cute face hides unexpected vocalisations. Far from the gentle hooting we associate with owls, its call is something I could only describe as a blood-curdling shriek, interspersed with a bad impression of a dolphin.
So why are these critters endangered? As usual, because of us. The key threatening processes to these owls are all the usual culprits: habitat loss, introduced species and anthropogenic climate change.
Of especially high importance is habitat loss. Tasmanian masked owls, like much of our fauna, require large tree hollows to nest in. Australia has the highest proportion of hollow-dependant species in the world. Over 300 vertebrate species rely on them for some part of their ecology. The problem being, tree hollows take an especially long time to form. In eucalypts tree hollows don’t usually start forming until around 60 years of age. For a hollow large enough to house large species of possums and birds, like the Tasmanian masked owl, it can take a minimum of 150 years to as long as 400 years. When old growth forest is destroyed, the loss of these hollows is devastating to a wide array of fauna.
In their stead, we often use artificial hollows most often in the form of nest boxes. Nest boxes are a poor substitute for natural hollows. We know they increase the risk of predation, have a much higher parasite load and the internal temperature fluctuates much more. This can have a fatal impact on the resident species, particularly their offspring. Nest boxes are a better-than-nothing solution, but nothing is a good as a natural hollow.
Their short supply also means increased competitions from other species. Timid species can be bullied out of a hollow by more aggressive species, or the boxes can be made inhabitable by insects such as the introduced honey bee.
This means that we need to conserve as much old growth forest as possible, and work to build more of it. If you are following the political situation in Australia, however, you will already know the opposite is happening.
Our current government is working to remove the World Heritage status from a chunk of Tasmania’s old growth forest, one of the last expanses of temperate rainforest left in the world. The removal of the world heritage status would be only the third instance ever, and the first time the removal has been requested for political reasons.
Why are they doing it? To log it, of course. Our current Prime Minister is recently on record as saying we have too many national parks. In a country where habitat loss is the leading cause of the imminent extinction of countless species, he’s declared we have too much of it.
There are so many reasons why this is a bad idea, but the loss of natural tree hollows is one I’d rate most highly. These hollows are essential habitat and simply cannot be easily replaced.
So how can we help save this species?
The most important thing is ensuring they have a place to live and raise their offspring. Breeding and reintroduction programs can only be effective if the animals have habitat to live in. They require old growth forest and to save them we need to save as much forest as possible.
The most prominent threat to that right now is the proposed removal of the world heritage status. If you want to save it, make sure the policy makers know how you feel about it. Contact your local MP and tell them how you feel about this issue. Ask them to support the agreement and make it clear your vote in the next election will be informed by their continued response to the cause.
There are also a couple of petitions you cad add your name to. You don’t need to be an Australian resident to contribute to these.
- This petition asks retailer Harvey Norman to follow in Bunnings’ footsteps and support the Tasmanian forest agreement.
- This petition calls on our Environment Minister Greg Hunt to withdraw his proposal to delist Tasmania’s World Heritage forests. After you’ve signed you can choose to donate to the campaign if you want to.
- This petition asks both the World Heritage Committee and the Federal Government to leave the protected area in tact without boundary reductions.
- This petition asks the World Heritage Committee to reject the proposal
If you live in or are visiting Tasmania, you can help in monitoring the population. First, be sure you know how to tell the difference between a masked owl and a barn owl. Then if you see one you can report the sighting using the Threatened Species Link or the Natural Values Atlas.
If you’re a land owner [or you know someone who is, encourage them to] avoid cutting down any old, large trees. If your property has suitable nesting trees, or if you’d like to develop some, you can join the Private Land Conservation Program. If you are having issues with pests species on your property, avoid using things like single-dose rat poisons, particularly near nesting habitat. Owls may eat the poisoned rats and receive a secondary dose of the poison.
You can also support any wildlife parks, refuges and zoos that are dedicated to the conservation of these critters. Places like Raptor Refuge that nurse sick and injured Tassie raptors back to health and rehabilitate them are always in need of help to keep their services going. If you’re local to any of these places, you can also volunteer your time.
And as always, consumer attitudes are a great driver of change. Before the extension to the world heritage listing, there was a fierce conflict between conservationists and the logging industry. An international boycott (specifically notable was the British ban) on timber from Tasmania drove the treaty called the Tasmanian Forestry Agreement. Ensure that when you buy timber products it’s coming from sustainable plantations, and especially that it’s not coming from old growth forest. This is something that is perpetually important globally.
Now the important stuff is out of the way, I’ll talk cake details. I’m usually very particular about making cakes with no inedible components, but when it comes to birds I have to compromise. I haven’t attempted a bird cake since the Furnix cake many eons ago, but I certainly learned lots about what not to do, including not using such a small gauge wire.
For this one I made the base cake, then worked on the owl body using a wire structure attached to a rice crispy base. I topped that with chocolate cake, carved the outline, then smothered it all in whipped chocolate ganache.
Then it was simply a matter of covering it in sugar feathers. I say simply, but it was a nightmare. There were hundreds, if not thousands.
Each feather, even the smallest ones, was individually cut, embossed, then hand painted using food colouring. I had to wait for each feather to dry before attaching it to the body of the cake, then repeat the process.
It involved a bit of launching my brain back into my Vertebrate Structure and Function class back in the second year of my Bachelor of Science degree to remember how they were all put together. The was particularly so concerning the primary and secondary wing feathers. I’m glad there was no one watching me at that point because it involved a lot of re-enacting birds folding their wings with my arms and talking to myself.
Flight feathers are, of course, asymmetrical, so I paid special attention to the placement of the shaft in each feather on both sides of the owl.
The feathers are all around 1-2mm thick, so getting them on the final piece without breakages was by far the hardest part. Too little sugar glue and they wouldn’t adhere, too much and it would dissolve the whole feather. I had issues with a couple tiny breaks along the way, but nothing life ruining.
The other major challenge was anatomy. When making the base cake there were decisions made as to the shape that couldn’t be changed much later, and were only very obviously a problem later. I’m going to avoid grumpily muttering about anatomy mistakes and the things that need improving. It is a great deal better than I would have been capable of when I first signed up to the project over a year ago, and I’ve definitely learned a lot in the process of making it, too.