It’s a radiant morning, and the zoo is filled with birds. Robins bathe in a waterfall. Pigeons peck at a discarded slice of pizza. Mallards circle around an artificial pond. Near a fence, strollers pause as chubby fingers point at the flamingos. These creatures from the Caribbean are sleeping—balanced on one leg, long necks twisted backward, bills nestled into cotton-candy feathers.
“Everybody loves the colorful ones,” says Sara Hallager, bird curator at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. “I happen to like brown ones.” Along the path hops a tiny wood thrush, the official bird of Washington, D.C. “See? A brown bird. But he’s got that spotted breast and that beautiful song.”
This past March, the zoo reopened its Bird House after a six-year renovation. Visitors can now wander through three indoor habitats. The first is filled with Delaware Bay shorebirds. The second is modeled after a prairie where ducks refuel during migrations. The third resembles a Latin American coffee farm. Orange-and-black Baltimore orioles are at home in that tropical habitat. “People in these parts might think, ‘It’s my Baltimore oriole,’” Hallager notes. “But in the winter, it lives in Central America and it’s someone else’s oriole.”
This is one reason people love birds: A baseball team in Maryland can be named for a species that winters in Nicaragua. Birds have never cared about the boundaries between North and South Korea, or East and West Berlin. Some of the farthest fliers migrate from Canada to Chile, Alaska to New Zealand.
The Bird House at the National Zoo is home to scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings and American yellow warblers. But Hallager makes sure to point out the brown kori bustards in the outdoor area. Visitors are missing out if they don’t stop to admire these ostrich-like birds from the African savanna, with herringbone-tweed necks and dotted underbellies. Their heads are especially endearing—a sloping mullet of feathers and a brow that gives them a perpetually studious expression.
“That’s my girl,” Hallager says proudly, pointing to one of the kori bustards. “She was born here. I hand-raised her. As soon as I walk by, she’ll come over.” For Hallager, who has been working with birds at the zoo since 1989, these feathered friends are like pets. The smaller birds, like the ones in the coffee farm exhibit, live five to eight years. But the larger birds outside can live to be 25 or 30. Parrots can reach their 80s or 90s.
At the edge of the outdoor pens, bird behaviorist Phung Luu introduces visitors to creatures they’d never be able to approach in the wild—vultures, ravens, macaws and cockatoos. He disappears briefly into a small tent and then emerges holding a nest full of white-throated magpie-jays. “They’re just a few weeks old, still very much babies,” he says, as the chicks squawk and climb on each other’s backs.
Luu and Hallager call these babies “ambassador birds,” hoping they’ll inspire visitors to protect bird life. That might mean drinking shade-grown coffee, which prevents the clear-cutting of forests. Or it might mean keeping cats indoors. “People say, ‘My Fluffy doesn’t kill birds,’” Hallager says. “Yes, he absolutely does.”
The final birds Luu brings out from the tent are white-faced owlets. No photograph or children’s book is adequate preparation for the feeling of holding one—the dark-edged feathers and prickle of little feet. Most astonishing is the feeling of staring into those perfectly round eyes, deep-blue pupils surrounded by saucers of bright orange. It’s oddly similar to the way a newborn human baby looks out at the world—a quiet, steady gaze loaded with mystery and intelligence. “Once people have that connection, they listen a bit more and they care a little bit more,” Luu says.
The talented wildlife photographers featured on these pages will attest to that. We asked them to send us exclusive images of their favorite birds, taken near their own homes. Pausing to look closely at a bird, to enjoy its song, is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to commune with nature. Birds are beautiful and varied, musical and free. And they’re everywhere.
Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna
Photograph by Gretchen Kay Stuart
“I’ve always been enchanted by hummingbirds,” Stuart says. “Their tiny size and iridescent plumage make them seem as though they are born out of fairy tales.”
As otherworldly as these creatures are, they’re not hard to find in western U.S. suburbs. Set out a sugar-water feeder in your garden, and you’re likely to spot them. You might need to pay close attention: They’re only about four inches long and, like other hummingbird species, they move quickly. But the males in particular stand out because of their magenta heads, which shimmer in the sunlight. During courtship dances, the male can rise up as high as 130 feet before diving sharply toward the female.
When Stuart moved to the Oregon Coast, she was delighted to find that her landlord maintained feeders for several families of Anna’s hummingbirds. The property was surrounded by thick brush and flowering Pacific crab apple and Klamath plum trees. Hummingbirds abounded. “Observing and photographing the graceful yet fierce behavior of Anna’s hummingbirds became a ritual, bringing joy and serenity to my days,” she says.
Columbian Sharp-Tailed Grouse, Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus
Photograph by Noppadol Paothong
If it looks like these two sharp-tailed grouses are taking part in an elaborate dance, they are. As females look on, the males point their tails upward, spread their wings, hold their heads low and stamp their feet in a stuttering pattern. These courtship demonstrations are so elaborately choreographed and perfectly synchronized that Native American groups have emulated them. To this day, the Northern Tutchone First Nations group of Yukon continues to perform a grouse dance.
The Columbian sharp-tailed grouse can be found in the north-central and western U.S. and parts of Canada. To get this image, Paothong showed up on a frigidly cold Wyoming morning before the birds arrived—around 5 a.m. He set up a photo blind, or camouflaged tent, away from the mating ground and waited expectantly for the dance to begin. “Working inside a photo blind provides very limited vision and mobility,” he says. The biggest challenge was keeping his fingers warm enough to work the equipment when this magic moment finally arrived.
Evening Grosbeak, Coccothraustes vespertinus
Photograph by Melissa Groo
The evening Grosbeak tends to hover north of Groo’s home in Central New York State. So she was delighted when a flock of them recently appeared outside her house. “When they roam further south in winter in search of food, I’ve been blessed with their presence, sometimes over months,” she says. “This past winter and into very early spring, I had a flock of up to 15 visiting my platform bird feeder daily, hoovering up black oil sunflower seeds.”
Seeds and berries are favorite food sources for these birds. In the summer, they also eat insects. While they breed in coniferous forests, their southern migrations don’t always take them to the same place, which makes their appearances somewhat unpredictable.
Groo made the most of the grosbeaks’ visit. To get this shot, she waited at her open upstairs window for two hours, training her lens on a sugar maple tree where the birds liked to perch. “It was very cold despite my layers of clothing,” she says, “but when I have my lens trained on birds like this, discomfort takes a back seat, and I can endure all kinds of things.”
Great Egret, Ardea alba
Photograph by Jak Wonderly
Wonderly was walking in downtown Santa Rosa when he saw a stark white bird with a five-foot wingspan flying overhead, carrying a stick. Another appeared, then another. “Following the birds and the sound of bird calls, I came to two large eucalyptus trees that are a rookery for egrets and herons,” Wonderly says. Construction in the late 1990s apparently disturbed their earlier breeding colony, so the birds established a new one—right in the middle of a boulevard.
In the late 1800s, great egrets were hunted nearly to extinction because their plumes were prized for ladies’ hats. The National Audubon Society helped save them, using the great egret as its logo. “They’re incredibly graceful, spectacular birds,” Wonderly says. “The chicks, however, emerge with green skin and spiky white feathers. They look like Muppets.” To save chicks that plop to the street in Santa Rosa, volunteers place straw to cushion their falls and scoop them up so they can be raised to adulthood. “International Bird Rescue has successfully released more than 100 egrets and herons in a given year,” he says, “all from this one area.”
Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus
Photograph by Karine Aigner
When a male roadrunner courts a female, he may bring a gift: a dead lizard, a centipede, a dragonfly or a small bird. After holding out his offering, he proceeds to mate with the female. It’s an effective seduction tactic: Roadrunners mate for life.
The bird in this picture is a regular visitor to the South Texas ranch where Aigner teaches photography workshops. He’s known around the ranch as Sir Walter Camilo Meeplethorpe. For a while last year, he seemed forlorn. “Each day that summer, Sir Walter would hoo call,” she says—a sound not unlike the cooing of a dove. Sir Walter kept showing up at a half-built nest and calling out, a gift always in his mouth. Bird biologists suggested to Aigner that Sir Walter had lost his mate, and the unfinished nest seemed like an ominous sign.
Toward the end of summer, Aigner spotted a female roadrunner she’d never seen before. “And then I saw Sir Walter,” she says. “He ran through the patio and stopped in front of me.” The female seemed skittish at first. “Then one day, I walked out the door and they were mating,” says Aigner. “I was nothing less than ecstatic.”
Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus
Photograph by Michael Milicia
Walking along a beach in the eastern United States, you might spot one of these small, round birds in the midst of its signature foot-trembling maneuver. Piping plovers will dash along the shore and then suddenly stop and tap the sand with one foot. The leading theory holds that the goal of all this stomping is to startle insects and other prey, making them easier to detect and catch.
The piping plover is an endangered species, almost gone from the Great Lakes region where it once thrived. If you’re lucky enough to spot one on the Atlantic Coast, you’ll have a good shot at getting a picture, since these birds frequent busy beaches and tend to be well-acclimated to humans. But to get a spectacular shot like this one, says Milicia, it helps to be lying down. “I approach the birds on foot until I am about twice the distance that I want to be and still far short of their fear circle,” he says. “I then lie down and slowly belly crawl to get closer. Most of the time the birds are unbothered by this approach, but if they are reacting to my presence, I move on.”
Northern Pygmy-Owl, Glaucidium gnoma
Photograph by Gerrit Vyn
In Western Oregon where Vyn lives, the tooting of the northern pygmy-owl is the sound of spring. “Even when you don’t see them, while hiking through the forest or sitting in a lush patch of sword ferns on the forest floor and looking up into the canopy, just knowing they are somewhere up there, watching, deepens the experience and magic of place,” he says.
Vyn spent ten days waiting near the nest cavity in this tree, hoping for owlets to emerge. Watching the mother owl and her mate deliver food to the chicks, he saw an astonishing range of prey species. “In the predawn hours, moths were commonly delivered, and as the day progressed there was a steady of stream of small mammals and birds.” Mice and voles were often on the menu, as were birds ranging from the tiny Wilson’s warbler to the much larger black-headed grosbeak. Although these owls aren’t much bigger than house sparrows, they can prey on species up to three times their size.
Vyn’s advice to aspiring bird photographers is to study their habits and schedules: “Become a better naturalist—know birds better.”
Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja
Photograph by Mac Stone
When Stone was a biologist with the National Audubon Society, he used to love watching a spoonbill chick push out of its shell. “It used the only tool it had: a blunt pink spoon,” he says. The distinctive bill would prove to be useful as the chick grew to scoop up crustaceans and fish.
Naturalists have fun describing these birds. “The spoonbill exhibits paradoxical glamour and drollery,” wrote Robert Porter Allen in 1942. The Audubon Society’s website describes it in the words of contemporary field guide author Kenn Kaufman: “gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close.” After being almost exterminated by plume hunters in the late 1800s, roseate spoonbills have made a remarkable (though incomplete) comeback. They’re usually found along the Gulf Coast and farther south, but with sea-level rise impacting their fishing grounds, they’ve been sighted farther north—in Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, New York, and even as far as Michigan and Connecticut.
California Condor, Gymnogyps californianus
Photograph by Joshua Asel
For anyone who considers the California condor an unsightly bird, Asel suggests watching them at sunset. “Their heads and crops can reflect the entire range, from yellow to pink to crimson,” he says. “You can hear the wind flow past their massive wingtips, almost like the sound of dozens of swords simultaneously swinging through the air.”
California condors are the largest bird species in North America. They are critically endangered, with just 275 free-flying in California, Utah, Arizona and Baja California. They serve the environment by cleaning up animal carcasses, a role they’ve played since the days of woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers.
“If you’re lucky enough to have one of these flying giants soar right past you and look you right in the eyes, you can immediately sense their undeniable intelligence,” says Asel, who has spent the better part of a decade working for their conservation. “And I don’t mean they look at you in some general way. They look directly into your eyes.”
Green Heron, Butorides virescens
Photograph by Steve Jessmore
“I relate to these birds because they can be so still, patient and quiet as they hunt by themselves,” Jessmore says. “I try to emulate their stillness in order to photograph them.”
All U.S. range maps include migration, breeding and non-breeding, and year-round areas; Sources: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; ResearchGate.net; Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife