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Photographing Nests Containing Young Birds

( Originally Published 1902 )

MORE interesting but far less satisfactory is this branch of bird photography. Occasionally we hap-pen to obtain really good results, but take it all in all the pictures of the young birds in their nests, especially the smaller ones, are very disappointing. The reasons are obvious, but difficult to overcome. To begin with, very young birds are in constant motion, and this motion is fairly rapid ; when at rest it is due only to the respiration, but when their heads are raised they tremble violently, owing no doubt to the weakness of their muscles. Therefore all photographs should be made with a very short exposure, if sharpness of outline is desired. Of course this means that the lens must be used wide open or nearly so, with the resulting lack of depth of focus. When the young birds are asleep or are resting they huddle together so closely that one cannot be distinguished from the other, and the photograph simply shows a mass that might be almost anything. This applies more particularly to small birds up to the size of the robin. With the larger birds this difficulty is far less noticeable.

In photographing small birds' nests containing very young birds, arrange the camera so that the nest shows in the desired position, and focus on the inside of the near rim. When all is ready and the shutter set to about one fifth or one twenty-fifth of a second, make a noise or tap the branch near the nest, and instantly all the youngsters will raise their heads and open their mouths, ready for food. Usually the slightest vibration near the nest will cause them to do this. While the heads are up is perhaps the most satisfactory time for making the exposure, as it shows the birds in detail. When they lower their heads and before they settle themselves in a mass is also a good time, particularly so if they rest their heads on the edge of the nest. Sunlight is almost essential for these young-bird photographs, but great care must be taken not to have the shadows too dense. Reflecting-cloths should be used as far as possible. Extreme high lights may be avoided by placing a very thin screen of cheese-cloth (wet cheese-cloth is more transparent) or some such material over the nest, but not too close to it.

It will be noticed in instantaneous photographs of birds' nests, especially if they are in surroundings of foliage, that the backgrounds are simply black-and-white blotches. This is difficult to overcome. Perhaps the best way is to hang a light-gray cloth or even white cheese-cloth at a distance of from about four to eight feet from the nest. The cheese-cloth, being more or less transparent, allows the background to show through to a limited extent, this modifying the white of the cloth. If properly arranged this background gives very pleasing results. Should the nest be in a shaded place it will be found necessary to bend back the branches (on no account should they be cut) in order to allow the sunlight to strike the nest, but do not on any account destroy these shading leaves, as the young birds cannot endure the direct rays of the sun; you may notice that in almost every case the nest is situated so that it is protected from the sun during the greater part of the day. In photographing the young in their nest do not let the sun shine on them until you have everything in readiness for making the exposure. When there is not sufficient light, the sun's rays reflected from a mirror will be of great assistance, though the birds will be illuminated to the exclusion of the surroundings. The mirror will also prove most useful in photographing young oven-birds and others whose nests are screened from the sunlight by overhanging roots or branches. Backgrounds in shadow are not desirable, as, with the shortness of exposure, they show almost black in the photograph. Cutting down the branch in which a nest is built is not to be commended. It is sometimes done in order that the nest may be placed amid properly lighted surroundings. But this is done at the risk of the lives of the young birds; not that the parents will often desert a nest once the young are hatched, but if the branch is cut, the leaves die, and hanging dead and shrivelled, they are conspicuous, with the result that attention is drawn to the nest and its contents.

Then again, when the surrounding leaves are dead, unless very carefully replaced, the nest is exposed to both sun and rain, and, as a result of the more or less constant sunlight, the young are made restless and desert their nest much sooner than they otherwise would. In fact, I believe that young birds seldom stay as long in a nest that has been discovered and handled by human beings as they do in one that has remained undiscovered. This may be a wrong idea, but I have seen much evidence that goes to prove it. It is an indisputable fact that the longer a young bird remains in its nest (I speak only of those whose habit it is to remain in their home until they are about ready to fly), that is to say, the more developed it is, the better is it fitted to withstand rain and to elude its only too numerous enemies. Probably only a small percentage of the birds that leave their nest ever reach maturity, so it is highly advisable to do all in our power to lessen their dangers rather than increase them by changing their surroundings and forcing them out into the world of enemies before they are ready. Once a young bird has left or been removed from its nest, unless it is very young, it will seldom consent to remain in it again. This applies in particular to birds that nest on the ground, less so to those that build in bushes, and least of all to those which, like the woodpeckers and chickadees, build in holes in trees. The latter seem only too glad to be put back in their nest.

There is a marked difference in the length of time that young birds remain in their nests. Taking for example the smaller varieties, we find that, as a rule, those whose nests are on the ground not only leave at a very early age, but before they are able to use their wings. Young field-sparrows, blue-winged warblers, and oven-birds may be found creeping mouse-like among the grass and leaves in a very undeveloped state, unable to fly even a few feet, and scarcely able to balance themselves on a twig.

Birds whose nests are in bushes or trees remain in their nests until they are fairly well developed, usually not attempting to leave until their wings are more or less completely feathered, so that they are able to fly a few yards. But the birds hatched in a hollow branch develop rather more slowly and remain in the nest until they are almost as large as their parents and are fully feathered. Certain young birds, such as the screech-owls, use the nest as a home, leaving it at night, when they venture along the branches to receive their feed of June-bugs and other such insects which their parents bring to them, and returning home for the day.

The larger the bird the more satisfactory will be the picture of the young in their nest, for the reason that not only are they more clearly defined, but the camera must of necessity be placed at a greater distance from the nest, thereby giving a greater depth of focus, for of course the nearer the object, the less is the depth of focus of the lens. On this account it is better not to make the image larger than necessary, but rather to rely on enlarging the plate.

It is well to remember that when fledgelings are within a day or so of leaving their nest any imprudent act on your part may precipitate their departure. Therefore avoid shaking the nest or handling the young. Sometimes if even their heads are gently moved they will all scramble out, after which they can seldom be induced to occupy their nest again.

Hunting Game Birds With The Camera
Using The Ordinary Camera
The Traveling Photographer by Brian E. Small


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