What Wild Birds Tell Us About Ourselves

August 27, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

I am not much of a wildlife photographer. I enjoy doing it when the opportunity arises. But being a good wildlife photographer requires a commitment of both time and money I am not prepared to make. You have to be ready to sit and wait for long periods of time, in all kinds of weather, for the subjects to show themselves. And you generally have to have some very expensive equipment to make the sort of images that appear in National Geographic. A site where photographers gather to shoot roseate spoonbills, for instance, resembles a Civil War artillery battery, with the long lenses pointed at the target like so many cannon.

But I have enough expertise to know that the image above, though I rather like it, stands no chance in the marketplace. It's a good picture, but it shows a bird that, however doughty and resourceful, has three strikes against it, pictorially. It's common--some kind of sandpiper or curlew, I think. (Update: Anne Cotttingham, who knows her birds, tells me this is likely a willet, a member of the sandpiper family.) You can find this bird on any beach. It's small. It's brown. Strike three.

The picture at left, on the other hand, almost qualifies as marketable. It's not quite sharp enough, because I was shooting in low, cloudy light with a lens and camera that just can't deliver tack-sharp resolution in those circumstances.  But it's a roseate spoonbill, coming in for a landing in the salt marsh at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

A spoonbill picture attracts interest for several reasons. One, the bird is relatively rare, particularly to North Americans. Its normal habitat runs from South America to Florida; I was told that a group of spoonbills showed up in South Carolina a few summers ago, for reasons known only to themselves. They've returned for a few summers now, though regulars at the Huntington salt marsh tell me there are fewer this year than there were last year.

They're also big. The spoonbills I saw were about the size of great blue heron or wood storks. We like our birds big.

But I believe that the main reason the spoonbills draw crowds of tourists and wildlife photographers when they appear in South Carolina is their coloring--a soft, dusky pink in the case of this bird. Others are a deeper, brighter pink. They get that color, I'm told, from eating lots of shrimp. Their bills are well-suited to their diets. When it's feeding, a spoonbill looks like someone running a vacuum cleaner over a rug. Its bill sways back and forth through the shallow water, sucking up its prey.

You might think it's the weird bill that makes the bird photogenic, and you are doubtless partly right. But I think it's mainly the color. I believe we're hard-wired to be attracted to bright, vivid colors. This applies to all kinds of birds. People travel to Panama and Costa Rica to see birds like the scarlet macaw or the blue cotinga. At my local grocery store, the bird seed available for feeders is labeled with pictures of bright red cardinals and yellow goldfinches. No one would buy seed that was guaranteed to attract humble brown sparrows, though for all I know, sparrows are more interesting birds. People will occasionally stop on a causeway in South Carolina to watch a big, bright white egret, like the one at right, stalk its dinner. They won't slow down to watch much more ingenious crows figure out how to open a food container in a garbage can. They barely notice common, grey-and-white seagulls on the beach, even though that bird, like the one at right, can be graceful and beautiful.

I will not speculate on all of the ways that this instinctive color preference plays out in human society. I believe I can say a few things about the way it plays out in pictures. It's predictable, for example, that a woman who studied the way men responded to women on dating sites found that women photographed in red dresses got more hits than women in other colors. I believe it's why a spot of color can be so effective in a portrait.

But it's tough luck for willets.


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