THE BIRDS of the Galapagos Islands are apparently still as friendly as Charles Darwin found them during his visit in 1835.
Last July, wildlife painter Lee Marc Steadman went to the islands in search of fossils with his brother, a Smithsonian researcher. In his spare time, he painted these very cooperative subjects. Some of them are making a display now in "Birds of the Galapagos Islands," a show of 35 Steadman watercolors at the Natural History Museum.
The mockingbirds, the doves and the finches were the most hospitable -- playing in Steadman's paints, getting their feet blue. (If the blue-footed boobies joined them, no one could tell.)
The finches were so friendly they'd snatch hairs from the painter's head for nest building. And while posing for their portrait, a passel of pelican chicks perched on their nest and squawked at him an entire afternoon.
It was the wildlife on these equatorial, volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador that inspired Darwin's theory of evolution. The only way the plants and animals could've gotten to the islands -- which are the tops of volcanoes that rose from the sea -- was by import. They flew on the wind, blew in on the sea or arrived by ship.
To Darwin, the best explanation for the way Galapagos species differed from their mainland ancestors was adaptation. And species peculiar to the islands, such as the flightless cormorant, can be seen in this show. Although cormorants once flew to the islands, the ones Steadman painted are grounded. Because there were no predators, these cormorants long ago lost their ability to fly.
Wavy lines on the breast of the magnificent waved albatross distinguish it from mainland relatives. Perhaps the lines make the bird more beautiful for a courtship ritual undisturbed by predators.
A fantastic array of birds inhabit the Galapagos, and Steadman portrays them in their glorious colors: swallowtail gulls with scarlet mouths, vermilion flycatchers, the great blue heron and perfectly ordinary pink flamingoes. And penguins -- oddly this is the penguin's northernmost outpost, a chill current keeping the water sufficiently cold.
The paintings Steadman produced while on the islands are more impressionistic and less detailed than ones he's done from specimens at the Smithsonian. These field paintings are otherwise distinguishable by being smaller than the museum-made versions, no doubt adapted to the need to be portable. BIRDS OF THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS: TRADITIONAL WATERCOLORS BY LEE MARC STEADMAN -- In the Museum of Natural History's second floor rotunda balcony, through March 10.