Barbara Bosworth on Birds

1. How did your interest in birds develop? At what point did they become a subject as opposed to just a part of nature?  

My father always paid attention to the birds around us, pointing out and remarking on the ones in our backyard. Cardinals. Chickadees. Nuthatches. Goldfinches. The usual northeast Ohio backyard birds, and, occasionally, a Bluebird, Indigo bunting or Scarlet tanager. He could mimic a few bird calls which brought me great joy listening as he “talked” with the birds on our walks through the woods.

In addition, as a child, a print from the 1930’s hung on my bedroom wall as it had on my father’s childhood wall. It was of a young girl sitting on a bench in the woods looking up at a robin in the tree next to her. She could have touched it she was that close.

In the summers, my family would go on vacation from my home state of Ohio to Wellfleet on Cape Cod, where we would visit the local Audubon Center. On one occasion, my parents bought me a red, wooden bird call. With practice, one could twist the two parts of it together to make a variety of bird calls. I remember standing alone under a tree along the path, bird call in hand, trying to master one call, and a great sense of accomplishment when a chickadee flew in and landed on the branch next to me. I must have been 9 years old. This was most exciting.

As an adult, this childhood interest in birds led me to a group of bird banders in Eastern Massachusetts. (Bird banders are licensed to catch and then release birds for the purpose of gathering data to study their behavior, monitor the population and to track migration routes.) I began spending time with them at their banding station and to walk the woodland trail with them. I wanted to make photographs of people with birds. This began my series called Birds and Other Angels.

Around the same time, when my mother was in the haze of dementia which accompanied Parkinson’s, she would often reach upward as if to hold onto something from heaven. When I asked her what was she reaching for she replied, “Oh! The birds”. As my father lay dying, she again reached for the birds she saw flying over him. During this time, I began looking at a lot of early Renaissance paintings. In them, I saw doves flying and saints with palms turned toward heaven. Not unlike my mother’s upward reachings. From this came my images called Behold in which birds seem to rise to heaven.

2. Who have you met through birding? Are there any particular individuals that stand out?

I have met many lovely people through the bird world. One woman in particular, Beth, organized and managed the bird banding station I spent time at. She is a devoted birder and bird saint. Much public outreach happens at the banding table so there were always new people coming by to help and to learn. Beth along with Strickland (the master permit holder) are passionate birders and never missed an opportunity to share their knowledge and joy of birds with others, including me.

3. Have you held a wild bird? How did it feel?

Yes. It was so light it felt like air. (Do you know they have hollow bones?) They’re lighter than one might first expect them to be. But, so warm and you can feel their heart beating.

4. Tell us about an elusive bird that you eventually saw.

The most memorable bird sighting was when I was backpacking through a canyon in Utah, I sat down for lunch and eventually noticed a hummingbird flying back and forth from its nest. Maybe not so elusive a sighting, but a very unexpected and exciting one. Made a delightful lunch spot.

5. What's the most memorable spot you've sat birdwatching?

Admiralty Island, Alaska. There must have been at least 100 bald eagles perched in the trees lining the river.

6. When you're watching or seeking birds what are you thinking about or feeling?

Birds, air, the sky, flight, heaven, clouds, the sun.

And, I think about their migration. My father often rhetorically exclaimed, “How do they do it? How do they know how to find home?” I had no answer and we were both silenced by the mystery. When I got the call that my father was dying, and in a coma, I flew to his bedside. The book I was serendipitously reading at the time was called Living on the Wind by Scottt Weidensaul. It is about the mystery of bird migration and is full of stories and science. I sat by my father through the night and read to him from the book. I want to believe he could hear me reading about birds finding their way.

7. When photographing birds how at ease are you? I'm wondering if there's a tension between the speed of the birds and the deliberation of the 8*10 camera and how you navigated those two mindsets. 

In the photographs for Birds and Other Angels the birds are being held by the banders. On one hand, slowness and patience is called for with the large format camera but on the other I pressure myself to work fast so the bird can be released.

The images for Behold, were made handholding my digital camera. No tension really, just an intense time of looking. And, lots of patient waiting.

8. Who else makes art with birds you feel drawn to?

Jem Southam, Elaine Bezold, Jean-Luc Mylayne, and Bernard Plossu.

9. Should birds ever be kept as pets?

I don’t know. I would find it hard to keep a bird as a pet. I love watching them fly against the sky too much.