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Photographing Old Birds And Their Young

( Originally Published 1902 )

PHOTOGRAPHING bird families after they have once left their nests we count the most delightful part of bird photography, the one which has the greatest possibilities and perhaps the greatest amount of difficulties to be overcome; that is to say, if we do it openly, without making use of any method of concealment. By doing it openly we come in personal contact with the birds, and we learn that they are not so wild as generally supposed. If they see that no harm befalls their young through our presence, they will frequently lose all fear and perch on our hands and shoulders. This is, of course, true only of certain birds. Of those that I have tried to induce to come to me, I have had the greatest success with blue-winged warblers, worm-eating warblers, chickadees, and chipping sparrows. In every instance they have shown an utter fearlessness and have come to me even though I happened to be moving. With some other birds I have had more or less success, and with others, such as the chewinks, red-winged blackbirds, and yellow-breasted chats, I have so far had nothing but failure.

In order to secure young birds at the time they are ready to leave their nest, it is necessary to watch them carefully, remembering that the young of different birds leave the nest at very different stages of development. For example, young grouse, quail, and woodcock leave almost immediately after coming from the eggs, just as a chicken does. Ground-birds, such as field-sparrows, bobolinks, etc., usually leave before they can fly at all, some starting off when but eight days old. Birds whose nests are at some distance from the ground seldom leave until their wings are fairly well developed; for the smaller birds the age is about twelve days. Chickadees and wood-peckers and others whose nests are in holes in trees are well developed at the time of leaving. So it will be seen that in order to know when to expect the young to leave you must know something of the bird and its habits. It is also well to remember what has already been said, that if you attempt to remove a young bird from its nest when it is within a day or two of being ready to leave, it will often refuse to go back even though it is not sufficiently developed to risk itself away from its home. It is very doubtful whether such birds often survive.

Occasionally one comes across young birds that are only just able to fly, hiding in the scrub. These, if not too far advanced, are splendid subjects for the camera, but they are not very easy to find. In fact,, it is seldom that more than two of the brood can be found. So it is best to rely on watching a nest, spending some time near it in order that the old birds may become used to your presence.

When the young are about ready to leave, make all your arrangements before disturbing them. Select the support you wish ; a growing branch on which there are not too many leaves is best, and to confine the range of both old and young birds it is well to isolate the branch by cutting away the immediate surroundings, otherwise the young will hop about from twig to twig and so get outside the field of your camera. Be sure when focussing on the support to leave sufficient space for the old bird on either side of the young. If the branch is inclined to sway with the breeze, secure it firmly, or it will swing backward or forward and be out of focus. Do not forget that the weight of the birds will cause the branch to sag downward, so allow for this when placing the camera. On the choice of the background much depends. A light background is far the best, as a dark one, being of course out of focus,. comes out much darker than you might expect. A cloth background, as suggested in Part IV, can be used to advantage, provided it does not frighten the bird, and my own experience leads me to think that the birds pay but little attention to it. The same may be said of the white reflecting-cloth placed beneath the birds. It is scarcely advisable to use much in the way of accessories, as, owing to the shortness of exposure, the lens must be used open or nearly so, and the leaves or flowers which extend a few inches forward or back of the birds would be completely out of focus and would simply be black and white blurs which would add nothing to the beauty of the picture; rather would they detract from it. In taking the fledgelings from the nest be careful not to let them escape, for their powers of hiding are wonderful. Let them once scramble into the scrub and it may take you hours to find them again. The most certain way is to put them into a bag (which should have breathing-holes cut in it), then one by one they can be taken out and placed on the branch. This sounds easy, and occasionally it is so, but as a rule the young rascals will not do anything you wish; sometimes, even though they are strong enough, they will not stand on the twig; they will fall backward or forward, as though their legs were paralysed, or they will clutch hold of their neck or wings and absolutely refuse to make proper use of their feet. It is a good test of patience, but you will soon realise that only by keeping good-tempered and cool can anything be accomplished. Just keep on putting each birdling in place, no mat-ter how often they fall off, and after a while, and it may take a Iong time, they will lose their obstinacy and behave themselves as young birds should.

If you find that they insist on flying away, even though they can go but four or five feet, tire them out by forcing them to take a number of such flights in quick succession. They will soon be only too glad to sit quietly. Do not on any account attempt to feed very young birds with worms or other insects or fruits. Leave that to the parents; they know far better than you what suits a fledgeling's stomach. If the day is very hot it is better not to subject the youngsters to the direct rays of the sun for longer than is necessary, as they cannot stand too much heat.

Now we will consider that all the young ones are sitting quietly on the branch and you have your camera in readiness. The next step is to induce the mother bird to come. For your success in doing this, patience is very necessary, but by far the most important consideration is the bird's disposition. Should she be naturally tame, your troubles will be few ; but if after waiting for six hours or so she still refuses to bring food for her young, your trouble will, in all probability, have been in vain, and you will have to search for a new subject. I once spent two entire days trying to coax a chewink to come and find her young who were posing before the camera, but without success. (Needless to say, I allowed them opportunities for feeding by removing the camera occasionally.) Even though I concealed the camera with leaves, and while I went forty feet away and hid in the bushes, one or other of the old birds would sit close by and watch every movement. Several times I saw one of the birds go fairly near the young (without carrying food), and my hopes would be raised, for I thought the other bird had gone in search of food, when suddenly from the young chestnut-trees which sheltered me a voice would call " Chewink, chewink, chewink," and I knew that I was still being watched. Finally, becoming disgusted and fearing lest the young might suffer for want of food, I packed up my things and went away, marvelling at the remarkable patience of that pair of chewinks.

Birds differ so much in their natures that no rule that will insure success can be laid down. With some birds it is necessary to conceal yourself from view and. make the exposure from a considerable distance, but usually you may stand in plain view, provided you are not too near and do not make any quick motions. Once the bird has become used to your presence she will no longer object to your being near; in fact, she will allow you to stand alongside of her young while she feeds them. It is noticeable that it is usually the female bird who feeds her young in the presence of possible danger; often the male does so as well, but never in my experience have I seen the male bird come until his mate has led the way. With some kinds of birds we find that the male acts as sentinel and does nothing toward the support of the family, while with others the two share all the work together, nest-building, incubating, and feeding the young.

Using The Ordinary Camera
Shooting With Reflecting Camera
Greg Lasley Nature Photography

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