National Geographic : 1954 May
Split Seconds in the Lives of Birds 681 Color Film and High-speed Flash Stop Whirring Wings and Show Details Too Fast for Human Eyes to See BY ARTHUR A. ALLEN Laboratory of Ornithology, Cornell University With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author YEARS of preparation, months of plan ning, hours of effort, and then a split second decision determines success or failure in photographing birds in action. The color photographs accompanying this article were three years in the making, but all 26 of them together required a total of only five and a fifth thousandths of a second to register on film. Each was made with a speed light flash lasting only 1/5000 of a second. Selected from hundreds of photographs taken in several parts of the country, these pictures give us those evanescent poses that are impossible for the human eye to discern, but, in the aggregate, give such charm to those animated bits of color that flit about our gardens or enliven the shade of our forests. Ever since Dr. H. E. Edgerton discovered the possibilities of the speed light in all sorts of high-speed photography, I have been in trigued by its use in the study of birds and have endeavored to apply it to situations in which sunlight or flash bulbs have proved inadequate in the past. The accompanying photographs are part of that record.* Bird Battle "Frozen" by Speed Flash An example of the motion-stopping effect of the high-speed flash is the photograph of the evening grosbeak on page 682. There was so much action that ordinary exposures would have recorded only a blur. In my boyhood these beautiful birds were practically unknown except in the Northwest. But in 1890, according to E. H. Forbush, evening grosbeaks made a great flight east ward and on through New England to the At lantic coast. They did not appear again until 1910, but by 1920 they were regular winter visitors throughout New England. In recent years evening grosbeaks have in creased greatly in the eastern United States. Nearly every winter large flocks of them come south from their northern nesting grounds to visit in villages and gardens where sunflower seeds are offered. They appear as far south as North Carolina and recently have been found nesting in northern New York and New Hampshire. Plainly, the species has changed its migration and distribution within the memory of many persons still living. Incidentally, the pleasing name is based upon the mistaken notion of the original col lector that the bird dwelt in dark woods and came out only at evening to sing. In spite of their friendliness at our window sills, evening grosbeaks are quarrelsome among themselves and chivalry is unknown, at least during the winter. One could guess this from the photograph on page 682, in which the yellow male claims for himself the whole dish of sunflower seeds and drives the gray fe male away. Georgia Goldfinch Challenges Cardinal An equally animated encounter is that of the goldfinch and cardinal on page 683. Again the speed light stopped the action, and we have a graphic picture of David and Goliath at the diner. Unlike the cardinals and the evening gros beaks, in which the males wear their bright plumage in winter as well as in summer, the male goldfinches during the winter wear a dull suit similar to the female's (page 698). Like the grosbeaks, they assemble in large flocks when not nesting, frequenting weed grown fields from the Gulf coast to New Eng land, and ordinarily feed on seeds. At Herbert L. Stoddard's plantation near Thomasville, Georgia, where this photograph was made, such a flock took over his feeding * Hundreds of Dr. Allen's remarkable photographs of birds have appeared in his 16 previous articles in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE and in his 328 page book, Stalking Birds with Color Camera, edited by Gilbert Grosvenor and published by the National Geographic Society ($7.50 in United States and Pos sessions; elsewhere, $7.75 in U. S. funds. Postpaid). This unique book reflects Dr. Allen's many years of experience and research as Professor of Ornithology at Cornell and as the leader of expeditions sponsored in large part by the National Geographic Society. It contains 331 illustrations from natural-color photo graphs, 264 of them by the author.