A made-to-order tree for two -- parrots, that is

September 29, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writer

Jack Cover said he took some good-natured ribbing when he went hunting for a tree this summer in a tropical rain forest.

There are, after all, plenty of trees in the forest. The mission was a success, but it was not just any tree he found.

Mr. Cover and his National Aquarium crew found just the right tree for a new exhibit -- a member of the legume family known scientifically as Pentaclethra macroloba that grows along stream banks in Costa Rica's lowlands.

His tree met a critical test. Its dimensions fit an exhibit space in the Baltimore aquarium's rain forest, where Mr. Cover is the curator.

But the original tree is still in the forest near the Panama border.

What the aquarium staff and an Oregon artist have done in recent weeks is duplicate the tree -- in shape, color, texture and even its termite nests -- as a roost for a pair of parrots.

Artist Jonquil LeMaster-Rock, Mr. Cover and aquarium horticulturist Steve Turner have been putting on finishing touches in recent days, making the tree so realistic with painted patches of missing bark and simulated wounds along the trunk that an aquarium volunteer guide had to ask: "Is it real?"

The answer: No, it's fiberglass, aluminum and very clever.

"A lot of people think it's real and wonder how you got it in here," Mr. Cover said as Mr. Turner, standing on scaffolding, inserted real plants into the bare limbs where -- like plants in the jungle -- they will take root and grow.

The tree was mostly built in the artist's Oregon studio, delivered by truck and carried into the aquarium building in seven sections to be attached by overlapping connections. The largest piece weighed close to 500 pounds, Mr. Cover said.

And talk about clever -- the parrots might think it's a real tree but will be unable to damage it with their ever-probing beaks. They will have plenty of food in trays concealed from view in the branches, while aquarium critters that are free to roam the pyramid-topped rain forest stop by for visits and chow down on real bugs lurking in the plants.

A real tree would have been impractical, Mr. Cover said -- not only for shipping, passing U.S. agricultural inspection and fitting through aquarium doors and elevators, but because it could grow through the roof while the birds did their best to peck the wood to smithereens.

Ms. LeMaster-Rock said the real tree on which her work is modeled was very much alive, with a full leaf canopy and an abundance of vines. But her version altered the appearance to make the fake look "recently dead" -- its smaller limbs mostly gone and the remains taken over as host for plants and wildlife.

"We basically took the tree shape, and added the story that the aquarium wanted to tell visitors in a way that could have happened, as naturalistically as possible."

The fabrication in Oregon took about four weeks, the artist said -- with two welders doing the metal work, and she and her husband, mural painter Dave Rock, putting on the fiberglass exterior.

Ms. LeMaster-Rock, who honed her tree-fabrication skills in the creation of Jungle World at the Bronx Zoo, did most of her work at the aquarium this month after closing time when the crowds were gone.

When the total exhibit near the rain forest exit is completed, Mr. Cover said, visitors will see the aquarium's two female double yellow head Amazon parrots perched on the lower limbs, with a waterfall behind them and a pool below inhabited by aquatic turtles and a fruit-eating species of fish known as pacu.

"We wanted someone to clean up what the parrots drop," Mr. Cover said of the fish. "Parrots are messy eaters."

The 26-foot-high tree -- along with related research and travel to Costa Rica, where the model was photographed, videotaped and cast to record every detail -- cost close to $35,000. The money was raised last year at the aquarium's Splash '93 fund-raiser.

The proceeds of "Splash '94: Raising the Reef" -- a $75-a-person, Caribbean-theme party planned for the night of Saturday, Oct. 22 -- will provide money for returning sharks and fish to the Atlantic coral reef exhibit whose overhaul includes a mural by Dave Rock.

Party information: (410) 576-3877.

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