Connecting the Dots: From Photographing Birds to Saving Species

Story and Photography by Jim Shane (unless otherwise noted)

As a nature photographer, I spend a large percentage of my time photographing birds, and raptors are at the top of my list of favorite targets. Fortunately, The Peregrine Fund is headquartered close to my home so I attended a live flight show. In a blatant attempt to establish some form of communication, I offered images to the bird handlers, which blossomed into a role as volunteer photographer and adviser. Now I get opportunities and requests for help gathering images for use in educational programs. The American Kestrel photo below is one example.

Once eggs hatch the feeding frenzy intensifies. Scientists at the American Kestrel Partnership learn from looking at images of the prey being delivered to the chicks by the parent birds. © Jim Shane

Interacting with The Peregrine Fund’s raptor biologists, I’ve learned that we as photographers have more in common with scientists than I imagined. Precise instruments. Sharp observational skills. A keen awareness that any disturbance of our subjects can alter the results. And like everyone who pursues their passion in wild places, we have a desire and responsibility to protect the life we observe and document. And, that intersection of interests can have a profound impact on conservation.

Something as simple as wear patterns on feathers, as shown here, could lead scientists to answers about the decline of American Kestrel populations. © Jim Shane

“Photo and video records have always been the gold standard in documenting behaviors and patterns we can observe in the natural world,” Dr. Sarah Schulwitz, director of The Peregrine Fund’s American Kestrel Partnership (AKP) told me. But non-profits can’t often budget for photography. Dr. Schulwitz’s project enlists citizen scientists to help find the source of kestrel declines across North America. Besides installing nest boxes and contributing nesting data to the project, participants have direct contact with professional scientists when something surprising occurs. Michael Griffith, an AKP member in Boise, Idaho, noticed a female kestrel regularly feasting on the carcass of a domestic turkey on his neighbor’s property. He sent photos to Dr. Schulwitz, who knew of only two other documented instances of a kestrel eating carrion. Michael’s photos became the core of a scientific paper on the phenomenon, and are clues toward understanding the species as a whole. (Michael’s photos, taken with a cell phone camera through a spotting scope, have not yet been released pending the publication of a scientific paper on the subject.)

Even a scene that has been repeated in your portfolio several times can have value. Every photo can add more proof to the empirical database that helps scientists resolve questions about wildlife behavior. © Jim Shane

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s e-bird is another example of photographers contributing to a large database that tracks migration, abundance, and other trends among numerous bird species. The system allows scientists to have “eyes” everywhere, vastly improving the quantity of data available for real-time analysis. These documentary applications don’t require great photographic artistry. The scientists are more interested in the story told by the photo than the beauty of the image.

Francis King, a nature photographer from Canada, submitted this photo to The Peregrine Fund and helped educate people worldwide about the plight of vultures. © Francis King

But when science and art are blended, good things can happen. For example, Francis King submitted a photo of three African White-backed Vultures to The Peregrine Fund in 2015. From partnerships with scientists across Africa, The Peregrine Fund found that some species had declined by 80% or more in only a few decades. The organization’s art director, Amy Siedenstrang, told me “We published that photo on the cover of the calendar knowing it might limit sales, but these birds were in catastrophic decline. They needed attention.”

What followed was like a line of dominos falling neatly into place: based on King’s photo, the editor wrote an extensive article about the value of vultures, which are endangered not just in Africa, but worldwide. The Peregrine Fund named 2016 “Year of the Vulture” and refocused its efforts, including outreach to more than 75,000 social media followers. Vultures have since been featured in National Geographic and other prominent media, the status of many species has been “uplisted” to Critically Endangered, government and private resources have been re-directed, and the uphill battle toward saving them is making real progress.

Did a single photo spark that much action? Not likely, but there’s no doubt it added fuel to an already flickering interest. If there’s one lesson I’d like photographers to absorb, it’s that their contributions to conservation are valued far beyond their realization. We can be the ‘eyes and ears’ for scientists, and our very best work can also touch hearts and minds. Your images could provide scientists with information that helps save an endangered species.