By Ilana DeBare
Birding helps us notice little wonders that we might otherwise take for granted — the California Towhee pair hopping in our backyard, never far from each other, or the Red-tailed Hawk regally surveying its world from a freeway sign over our traffic-clogged commute.
But sometimes even birders get complacent and take things for granted. “Another hawk, another towhee.” At that point photography can shake us up and make us look at things freshly again.
The Extraordinary Beauty of Birds: Designs, Patterns and Details (Prestel Publishing, 2016) is a new coffee-table book of photographs of close-up images of feathers, nests, eggs, and skins from the ornithology collection of the Royal Ontario Museum. Photographer Deborah Samuel selected 135 pictures of species ranging from the familiar (Mourning Dove, Wild Turkey) to the exotic (Superb Bird-of-Paradise), and Royal Ontario Museum ornithologist Mark Peck provided short, interesting nuggets of information on each one.
My favorite images in the book were those of feathers. We never get close looks at feathers in the field, and so photos like Samuel’s show patterns and structures that we otherwise might never see. They let us view familiar birds in a whole new way. You can look at these images as breathtaking geometric art, or you can study them more literally as examples of bird anatomy. The Mourning Dove wing feathers are so regular and smooth they almost resemble twill fabric. The red tips of a Cedar Waxwing feather do indeed look like the drops of molten wax that inspired their name.
I was less happy with the images of skins, or dead birds. They made me sad. We have access to so many wonderful photos of living birds — including many by Golden Gate Audubon members, including the photos we feature each year in our Birds of the Bay Area wall calendar — that I didn’t feel like the skin photos offered anything new. And I would much rather look at a photo of a live Tree Swallow than a dead one.
Samuel’s photographs of nests brought to mind another wonderful set of nest photos — by our own member Sharon Beals, author of Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them. Like Samuel, Beals photographed nests from a museum collection against a black background. But Beals’s nests are lit more brightly and bring out the colors, contrasting textures, and beauty of the nests much more vividly.
One nice feature of The Extraordinary Beauty of Birds is a section at the end that lists every species photographed and provides some basic facts — scientific name, family, geographic distribution, habitat, size, and conservation status. That’s helpful for birds I’d never encountered, such as the Hyacinth Macaw or Indian Peafowl.
The most meaningful images for me, though, were not the exotics, but the Northern California birds — those Wild Turkeys and Cedar Waxwings. They’re the ones that I thought I knew, and then got to understand in a new, different way.
The Extraordinary Beauty of Birds would make a fine gift for any birder friend… or for a non-birder who might be inspired to grab some binoculars and take their own close look at the wonders in their backyard.
Ilana DeBare is Communications Director for Golden Gate Audubon Society. She is the author of Where Girls Come First: The Rise, Fall, and Surprising Revival of Girls’ Schools and is currently working on a novel.