Distressed and hopelessly tangled, these birds look like the poster children for some environmental tragedy of our own making. In reality, they are the face of modern ornithology.
Todd Forsgren, a photographer based in Baltimore, Maryland, is fascinated by the long and intertwined history of birds and art. The two meet in the mist nets researchers use to trap Costa Rica’s wild birds, which cause a short-lived, slight shock but no injury.
The Montezuma oropendola (left) and boat-billed flycatcher (right) caught here are moments from being freed.
“I hope as people learn more about the moderately traumatic process of mist net trapping, they will see the images as beautiful,” says Forsgren.
Earlier generations of birds have paid a higher price in the name of art. Forsgren draws inspiration from the lifelike paintings that feature in John James Audubon’s famous 19th-century monograph The Birds of America, which is among the most valuable of all printed books. But their lifelike poses are deceiving: Audubon shot and mounted his birds before painting them.
A century later, bird art was at the forefront of the new environmental movement. Artist and ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson used photographs to paint an early field guide to the birds of North America. Because of people like him, binoculars, not shotguns, became the ornithologist’s primary tool.
Today, through advances in technology, it is radio transmitters that are cracking the remaining mysteries of bird ecology. That’s where the mist nets come in, offering an easy and safe way to catch birds so that the transmitters can be fitted. “My photographs are about our world progressing, and moving forwards in some direction,” says Forsgren.