Puerto Rican Tody (Todus mexicanus), 2009. (via Todd R. Forsgren | Ornithological Photographs)
To create his paintings, John James Audubon (1785-1851) shot birds and contorted their bodies into dramatic poses by wiring and pinning them onto boards. The quirky postures were not immediately popular with the scientific community. Instead, the Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia published the work of other artists who recorded birds in less flamboyant poses. Audubon’s work first gained notoriety in England, where “the American Woodsman” fascinated his patrons. His fame earned him a place in the Royal Society of the Sciences. Today, he is the namesake of the Audubon Society, and now many bird-watchers share a similar goal to Audubon: to record every species in the country on their personal ‘life lists’.
It was Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996) who pioneered the idea of a field guide. His guides highlight observable marks, pointed out by carefully placed arrows, which allow for the identification of birds at a distance. Peterson painted thousands of systematic illustrations of birds in static poses which he based on photographs, bird skins, and field observations. Field guides have allowed hobbyists, artists, and scientists to identify birds with binoculars instead of a shotgun.
Ornithologists now use mist nets instead of shotguns for data that cannot be obtained with the help of binoculars, microphones, or telephoto lenses. These nearly invisible nets are set up like fences and function as huge spider webs, catching unsuspecting birds. The researcher carefully extracts the bird from the net. Each bird is measured, aged, sexed, and banded with an individually numbered anklet (Audubon’s philopatry experiments with Eastern Phoebes was likely the first bird banding done in the United States). Then the bird is released, unharmed.
John James Audubon’s Monograph, Birds of America, and Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America were the first pieces of artwork I loved. I spent days studying and trying to emulate Peterson and Audubon as a bird-watching teenager. With these artists still on my mind, I set about on this project. I have chosen to photograph birds while they are caught in mist nets. Here, the birds inhabit a fascinating space between our framework of the bush and the hand. It is a fragile and embarrassing moment before they disappear back into the woods, and into data…