Why Photograph Birds?

WC reader Tequila Sunset asked WC in an email last year, “Why photograph birds?” WC sent back a snarky answer, but in fairness to TS and other readers, WC will now try to answer the question honestly.

First, it’s challenging. Out of all the photography WC has attempted, avian photography is the toughest. The little buggers move around a lot, most are deeply suspicious of people and they hang out in places where they are hard to see, let alone photograph. If you’ve watched a hummingbird feeding, you know what WC means by “move around a lot.” Interior Alaska’s smallest bird is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and it moves like a hummingbird on speed. As for being suspicious of people and being hard to see, well, the birds that were not suspicious or were conspicuously in the open got eaten. Their genes have left the pool. In this regard, birds the the exact opposite of flowers, which is why avian photographers sometimes poke fun at their floral friends.

Second, they are beautiful. Even the homeliest bird is beautiful. Few things in nature so elegantly combine form and function as a bird. The homeliest, most common birds – an American Coot or Alaska’s own Common Raven – are amazingly beautiful when examined and photographed with care. And birds like tanagers are simply stunning in their colors and feathers.

Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager

Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager

Even half-hidden by brush, this Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager is beautiful, illustrating WC’s first and second points.

Third, birds are close enough to us in evolutionary terms that we can project our emotions onto them. The technical term is anthropomorphize.  WC recently won a modest prize for a photo of a Gentoo Penguin and its chick. The chick seems to be staring up at mom (or dad, with Gentoos it is hard to tell) adoringly.

Gentoo Penguin with Chick

Gentoo Penguin with Chick

Actually, the chick was begging for food, which in penguins is a fairly revolting business. Penguins don’t have hands or claws. They regurgitate food down their chicks’ throats. So the next event isn’t nearly as charming:

King penguin Feeding Chick

King Penguin Feeding Chick

But we see the Gentoo chick’s behavior and project our emotions onto it.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, humankind is annihilating bird species at a rate not seen on the planet since the Dinosaur Killer arrived 65 million years ago. Humanity, as you read this, is inflicting the sixth great extinction event on the planet. Conservatively, world-wide almost one-quarter of bird species are endangered, threatened or facing severe habitat loss. It’s not a lot better here in the U.S. There is a flavor of documenting what we have in the hope of saving it, or at least recording what it was. WC has decent photos of a dozen or so species on the U.S. endangered species list. Your grandchildren, and possibly even your children, won’t get to see those species. The Hawai’ian Crow, for example, now only exists in captivity; it is extirpated in the wild. Just as WC never got to see a Carolina Parakeet, or the flocks of Passenger Pigeons that used to blacken the skies.

So it is a combination of challenge, beauty, marvel and importance that sends WC out before dawn, in hope of getting a photo. As a bonus, birding and bird photography make you more aware of the natural world around you. Not a bad thing. WC hopes to see you out there, too.


7 thoughts on “Why Photograph Birds?

  1. Hi,
    Just wanted to stop by and say that I enjoyed your post. These are some great photographs. Where were the images of the penguins taken? I’ve always wanted to see a penguin in person in their natural habitat.
    Thanks for sharing this,
    – Nate

    • The penguins in this post are all from South Georgia Island. The Gentoos are from Stromness; the Kings are from Salisbury Plain. If you search the site (scroll down and look for the search box on the right) on the word “penguin” you should find photos of seven species: Rockhopper, Magellanic, King, Gentoo, Adelie, Macaroni and Chinstrap.


  2. WC, that was a moving, honest and thorough explanation. No wonder you are an enthusiast.

    I wonder how many of your readers can convey why they do what they love most in such a loving way. Of course, it depends upon what they love doing – perhaps some things are better left unexplored. This time, however, your explanation enriched us all and gave us insight into a challenging but rewarding activity.

    As I’ve said before, I think you should one day consider gathering your comments and expanding them into short essays to accompany your photographs as see if a publisher would be interested. You obviously are a talented photographer, writer and teacher.

  3. kssunflower said:
    >>> “…You obviously are a talented photographer, writer and teacher.”

    And his skills as a lawyer ain’t half bad, either.

    Paul Eaglin

  4. Your avian portfolio is becoming very impressive, WC, both in its quality and its depth.

    BTW, you owe me…. 😉 … $X,XXX for that MacBook Air I bought probably solely in reaction to your having introduced it in this blog. Using bird photos as the excuse….
    Gawd, is it fast! About 3 seconds from “Power On” to fully operational.

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