Small Miracles: The Wonder of Birds' Nests
They’re intricate, involved creations, built of everything from mud and twigs to nails and window screens. Here’s a look at birds’ nests like you’ve never seen these miniature masterpieces before.
Impatient for winter to be over, we had put on our boots to go seeking signs of spring but had instead found a sign of the previous summer. We must have walked past this thicket a score of times last summer without ever noticing birds around it, but here is a bird’s nest among the branches, at eye level, in plain sight now that winter has stripped away the last of the leaves.
“My favorite palette is the color of winter decay,” says photographic artist Sharon Beals. It’s 7 a.m. in San Francisco, but she is already on her way out the door to work on her project for the day. Much of her professional photography takes her outside, “wandering a river for hours, looking at bugs, muck, and minnows,” as she says, or photographing native plants or their pollinators. Today, though, she will spend up to 11 hours in a museum, examining birds’ nests and photographing many of them. The results will add to her growing collection of nest portraits—extraordinarily detailed images that have already wowed scientists and artists alike.
Beals became immersed in this subject almost by chance when a friend, knowing her fascination with the subtle minutiae of nature, brought her an abandoned bird nest. Studying it, she knew she had to find a way to capture its intricacy. Using a very high-resolution flatbed scanner, she made images of this nest, and then another, and another.
But problems loomed. For one thing, she says, after turning a nest upside down on the scanner, she might have to spend hours cleaning all the dust that falls from the nests off the images in Photoshop. For another, as she discovered, possessing these nests was illegal.
Beals overcame the first challenge by moving to very high-resolution cameras and by taking multiple exposures, focusing on different planes, then melding the images together. But the second problem was tougher. The laws protecting U.S. birds are far more sweeping than most people imagine. Without special permits, it is illegal for private citizens to possess most species of native birds, or their feathers, or their eggs, or even their abandoned nests. The laws may seem excessive, but they were enacted at a time when our birds were under siege from commercial plume hunters and recreational egg collectors, and they were written to be wide-ranging and inclusive. Rather than give up or break the law, Beals turned to the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and the California Academy of Sciences, and soon had permission to come in and photograph nests from among the hundreds in the institutions’ specimen collections.
The popular image of natural history museums may be of a handful of stuffed creatures on public display in glass cases, but most keep the majority of their specimens in research collections out of public view. The nests at the California Academy of Sciences were mostly collected decades ago, at a time when relatively little was known about birds’ habits. These specimens provided basic data points then, and they continue to be scientifically valuable today.
For Sharon Beals, they also provided a treasure trove of artistic possibilities. She spent days at the academy, examining and photographing nests. “These first images gave me the satisfaction of seeing the materials on almost a cellular level,” she says. “I loved the quiet, subdued palette, and the shapes created by the form-follows-function art of the nest builders themselves. I loved the amazing variety of content and construction, the way the materials became like line and brushstroke.” When she began printing the images larger than life, on sheets of fine etching paper two feet across, others shared her enthusiasm. Visitors to her studio were fascinated. Almost invariably they became intensely curious. Beals had found a way to make people see the nests, truly see them, as cause for wonder and for endless questions about the birds that built them.
Birds do not live in their nests the way humans live in their houses. A few species, such as some wrens, will use them as shelters to sleep in at night, but they are the exceptions. For the majority, the nest is just a cradle. Built to hold the eggs and the helpless young, it is abandoned once the young birds are old enough to leave. In most cases it is never used again.