Friend of Birds
Recently I received a particularly pointed and emotional comment written in the public journal for an installation of my prints in a wealthy gated community.
Although I wholeheartedly welcome all commentary on my work both positive and negative for feedback purposes, it remains solely up to me to objectively weigh such comments- and then either check my actions and my work externally and internally- or refute the comments as uneducated, misinformed, or just plain assumptive nonsense.
Thus far I have enjoyed almost nothing but positive feedback on my art-work, and then only fielded technically-minded suggestions at the most. Additionally, I have happily and forthrightly answered multitudes of questions about the shots, how I capture the images [and therefore the subjects in them], and about the subjects themselves- and their well-being.
This brings me to the comment, presented here verbatim:
"Although it's a high and lofty goal . . . but do the birds you are disturbing feel the same way. They tell me no! You are disturbing them. Sorry to bring this up."
I was personally troubled and in some way offended by- yet truly understood -this comment, precisely because it is an issue I'm highly aware of and sensitive to in my chosen field of professionalism.
And, as this subject matter of what 'disturbing' truly is is core to the very nature of ANY and ALL human activities from building, development and sprawl to photography, birding, habitat restoration, specimen collecting, researching, banding, killing of or intervention with [as in the Kirtland Warbler/Cowbird issue] or excursions into nature [any at all- period!] -I feel it best to fully address the comment as best I can here and now.
Firstly, anyone who knows me well personally, or who has taken the time to read my artistic or website statements, or who is aware of the conservation, research and educational efforts I've been personally involved in over many years [or the job I was employed in as a Field Conservation Steward at the Kalamazoo Nature Center] knows where I stand.
Secondly, how does this viewer believe so firmly that I am 'disturbing' the birds? Why do they feel that this is the case [for ALL of my photos in general, apparently]? How do the animals in the photos 'tell' them so? If the viewer had queried me about specific photos, I would have explained the varying situations surrounding and leading up to each shot. Lastly and personally, in my own defense: I am a wildlife photographer. This is what I do- and of course, I attempt to always do better.
Yet the whole idea that one can somehow 'view' or be 'in' nature and not disturb it, interface with it or impact it ["seperation from nature syndrome"] has long been discussed in the literature, and I agree that one cannot 'enter into' it on ANY level without affecting it.
The point is HOW MUCH and to WHAT DEGREE does one affect it, and with WHAT intention[s]? If this writer happens to live in a condominium and drives an SUV, it's an inescapeable fact that they disturb the birds as well on some level- and still may not even realize it.
I certainly don't go out of my way to intentionally 'disturb' or harass wildlife. Moreover, for my purposes of candid photography, the opposing is rather desired: to be unseen, to be unobtrusive, and to remain greatly respectful and often at a distance. But still, there are certain situations where I am privy to the inner life of the birds, and this is what I showcase in some of my work- and exactly what makes the work so moving and so intriguing.
There are beneficial disturbances as well [such as the large-sale prescribed burns I'm involved with], and I believe that a barometer of what may be considered 'disturbing' needs to be introduced for reference.
Here's an example from my personal experience:
When I did bird-banding at Ft. Custer, my job entailed counting the baby birds in each box. Oftentimes I'd find that before I'd arrived on-site, another researcher from MSU would have removed one random Bluebird chick from the box. Why? To euthanize, pulverize in a blender, and from the ground remains of it thence extrapolate measurements of heavy metal compounds found in and along the Kalamazoo River.
This was research, it was sanctioned by at least one Federal and two State conservation entities, and it was paid for. It [supposedly] will help the birds as a whole in the long run- and it is 'disturbing' the birds as well. But where on the scale of 'disturbing' would the writer of the comment rank this with my very minimal and even beneficial impact upon the wild birds and animals that I encounter and/or steward?
Additionally there are other forms of 'beneficial disturbances'.
Does the writer of the comment feed the 'wild' birds at all? Then are they sufficiently certain that they are not killing House Finches outright by not keeping their feeders sanitized- and thusly the birds free of conjunctivitus in the local 'wild' bird population? How about the hawks that come in to hunt at birdfeeders in higher percentages than in the wild just because there is an abundance of concentrated prey at the feeding station?
My first rebuttal point [and opinion] is that animals simply do not 'feel' in the same way as we do. We anthromorphasize them; they do not have the ability or luxury to do this to us. They just do their Animal Thing. We humanize them; they trust us and see us for exactly what we are.
Quite frankly, I believe that the writer has subjectified or transferred their own, personal feelings about what they perceive as 'disturbing' onto or into what they perceive as being what the 'feelings' of the birds are.
My second- and more importantly, supported -point is that I observe the Practical Field Ethics of the American Birding Association [and Wildlife Photographers, too], the former of which I am a long-time member. My obeying these rules and guidelines are not based upon feelings but rather upon factual field research and common good sense utilized by the majority of professionals in the ornithological and eco-tourism fields alike. I also am a Christian and own and read The Sportsmen's Bible.
Furthermore, I was a Licensed Wild Animal Rehabilitator through the Kalamazoo Nature Center for over three years. I have first-hand wild-animal care experience, and to this day I continue to help injured or at-risk wildlife when the opportunity presents itself. I've nurtured and returned hundreds of human-interference-hurt animals back to the wild- and all on my own dime.
Also, a few specifics I should mention:
I'm the individual removing the car-killed animals from the roads to prevent other animals from being killed by the waste;
I'm the guy who picks up the trash at public parks so animals don't get entwined and die in the old fishing line or plastic beer can tabs.
I'm the person who has voluntarily built, erected and monitored hundreds of nestboxes for birds like the Eastern Bluebird. This is a species that would have become extinct due to man's impact upon its habitat were it not for just such (re)intervention in the 1960-70's. As well, for research purposes I've handled and banded over 600 birds who nested and lived in just such nestboxes. [Even the Native Peoples of North America hung gourds for Purple Martins to nest in, thereby fostering a symbiotic relationship with the birds who ate the pest bugs].
I'm the self-taught wildlife educator who has imparted to children and adults alike the importance of responsible stewardship of both the wildlife and the wild habitats which they call home;
I'm also the unpaid amatuer naturalist who takes folks on nature walks, gives free seminars on birding, and who helps to demystify some of the oldest and most common mistruths about wildlife and about man's relationship to it.
I could go on and on, but I believe my point has been made. It's purely just plainly irritating to me when assumptions are quickly made based upon a limited amount of knowledge, forethought or follow-up.
It IS a 'high and lofty goal' in what I am doing and attempting to accomplish here in my life with the limited time I have on Earth! I believe this 'goal' or work is directly related to and is inspired by my photography. The writer is 'sorry to bring this up', and yet offers no solution[s]. Would the writer then just have me quit? If so, they may hire me as their personal assistant, and rest assured. They should also know that no animals were ever harmed in the making of my work. 'Disturbed'? Yes. Harmed? No.
I intend to continue on this journey of bringing awareness, education and joy to people- some of whom would never have seen such beauty, or formed an interest in conservation or in wildlife. I can't recount how many have not known that one actually can touch a baby bird and SHOULD place a downed nest of baby birds back in a tree without fear of the parents 'rejecting' it.
I fully believe that the writer of the comment should step back, take in a deeper look around at the larger impact of man's footprint, the devastating impact it has as a whole on our last bits of wilderness [even on complete SPECIES of threatened wildlife just in Michigan ALONE], and next time, please don't assume: Investigate, and ask.
I appreciate your comments. Thank-you.
Greater Black-backed Gull, South Haven 2007
The Shrew in the Snow Sneaks the Surplus Seed 2008
Copyright 2008 Jonathan H. Morgan. All rights reserved.