John James Audubon once famously said that “a day in which he killed fewer than a hundred birds was a wasted day.” The father of modern ornithology had to kill the birds he captured in order to study them—disturbing to us, maybe, but standard practice for biologists in the 19th century. Since then, ornithologists have adopted a more humane research method, using thin, painless “mist nets” to temporarily incapacitate their subjects.
“John James Audubon’s Monograph, Birds of America, and Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America were the first pieces of artwork I loved," says 30-year-old photographer Todd R. Forsgren. “I spent days studying and trying to emulate Peterson and Audubon as a bird-watching teenager."
As an adult, Forsgren set out to recreate the descriptive scientific illustrations found in their seminal field guides. He traveled all over the world with ornithologists who agreed to let him photograph the birds they were studying, from the Great Plains to Costa Rica. He captured images of dozens of species frozen in a confused struggle against the netting. Against a white background, his subjects adopt nearly human expressions—embarrassment, fear, anger. “I’m often surprised by how the personalities of different species of birds change when they’re in the net or hand as opposed to flying free,” he says. "It is a fragile and embarrassing moment before they disappear back into the woods, and into data."
The series has been praised and vilified in equal measure, profiled by Time and sold on 20x200. Just as we’re shocked to learn that the patron saint of American naturalism killed thousands of birds in his lifetime, we’re also shocked by Forsgren’s images.
But he cautions that such techniques, which may momentarily confuse or upset an animal, also give scientists priceless data that often contributes to the birds’ protection. “Initially, most people think the images are tragic if they’re not familiar with the mist-netting and bird-banding; even a bit difficult to look at,” he told 20x200. “But I hope that, as they consider this moment more carefully, they’ll come to understand and appreciate the valuable information that biologists can collect using these techniques.”
[Images courtesy of the artist]