National Geographic : 1953 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine on arrival from abroad, were often released to join hundreds of others in a large wire en closure, the small-bird room. As I pointed, say, to a certain Gouldian finch sitting on a set of branches in company with several hun dred cordon bleus and zebra, fire, and straw berry finches, he waved the whole group into flight with one arc of the net wand. On the return sweep he almost invariably captured from out of the swarm the single specimen designated-and only that one! Some Demure, Others Excitable For close-up action pictures, small birds were allowed to fly free in variously sized chambers equipped with a system for flash illumination. They were photographed through a panel of glass fitted on the inside with a sheet of cellophane, loosely adjusted to act as a protective buffer for any birds attracted to the window. Each species had its own distinct person ality. Chesty little Java ricebirds hopped up onto the twigs provided, primping and be having adorably for the camera (page 95). Troupials leaped incessantly from floor to branch, from branch to floor (page 93). Cut throat finches stormed the branches, some times piling up two or three deep. Myna birds looked talkative but remained appre hensively silent (page 90). Toucan-barbets turned glum and angry and appeared eager to take a piece out of some one's skin, a feat of which their groove-point beaks make them fully capable (page 93). So seemingly demure a creature as the violet-eared waxbill from South Africa often sat motionless on the bottom of the chamber, uninspired and unattracted by twigs, seeds, or fruit dishes rigged up near the window (page 94). In contrast, yellow-winged sugarbirds, when loosed into the chamber, would create a bed lam, beating against the window and soiling it so quickly as to make photography a prob lem. The only way to work with so skit tish a subject was quickly to drape a quieting curtain over the front of the box, remove the birds, wash the window, and try it again (page 87). The male pin-tailed whydah, a bird with long tail feathers that shimmy quaintly in flight, also proved to be a tough customer when it came to posing. Like the violet-eared waxbill, it pouted on the bottom of the cham ber and refused to perch on any of the props provided. Finally we decided to try decoys. We intro duced a few cordon bleus and some golden breasted waxbills, which immediately obliged by flying about and landing on the appropriate perch. Soon, not to be outdone, the whydahs followed suit and so came into camera range (page 82). During such confinement care was taken to prevent any movement whatever by ob servers outside the glass window. The slight est disturbance could throw otherwise gentle birds into a fury of fluttery excitement. Luck ily, during more than 3,000 exposures involv ing hundreds of birds, not one was hurt. For action shots we wanted the birds to fly naturally. Fortunately, the pictures were being taken at a flash speed approximately 1/15,000 of a second, too fast to be annoying to the birds but sufficient to freeze all motion.* Some of the pictures taken thus lent them selves to interesting aeronautical comparisons. This applied particularly to the small birds, for they and their aerial analogues, the insects, accelerate and decelerate with a suddenness impossible for large birds or man-made planes. Going from 25 miles an hour to a nearly instantaneous stop represents a miracle of mechanics; yet small birds do it with apparent ease. Any plane, automobile, goose, or fla mingo attempting a similarly abrupt decelera tion would find itself in a heap of pieces. Inspiration to Air Pioneers It is not surprising that S. P. Langley, the Wright brothers, and other pioneers of human flight studied bird movement, and that the gliding of birds was simulated long before serious thought was given to powered ma chines. Of further footnote interest in studying the photographically frozen action of small birds is the vital role played by the legs in provid ing a leap at take-off and a cushion in landing. Such pictures also reveal the delicate angling of individual feathers or groups of them as ailerons, stabilizers, fins, and the like. By their use most small birds can bank, avoid, or stop with incredible efficiency. Wholly different in behavior from small birds were the aracaris that arrived one day from South America. These grotesque mem bers of the almost incredible toucan family have beaks which, although not as massive as that of the toco, are perhaps the more strik ing for their weird colorings (pages 84, 85). Four of the newly arrived group had the experts stumped. Reference books were con sulted and memories scanned. Never had this species passed through these hands. With narrow, reptilian eyes and witchlike aspect, they were strange birds indeed, and clearly too rare to hazard coaxing into flight action. I decided to settle for still portraits. * See "A New Light Dawns on Bird Photography," by Arthur A. Allen, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, June, 1948, and the National Geographic Society book, "Stalking Birds with Color Camera," by Dr. Allen, with 331 color plates.