Planet Earth

Stunning High-Speed Photos of Birds

Photographer Andrew Zuckerman earns the title of the new Audubon with his high-definition, high-speed avian portraits.

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Photo Credits: All text by Nina Bai; all images by Andrew Zuckerman.

"It was one of those images that demanded more investigation," says photographer and film maker Andrew Zuckerman of a photo of a macaw that he had shot for his first book, CREATURE. So for his latest project, Zuckerman focused his lenses on birds. "Imagery of birds is found in all ancient art and has been repeatedly used throughout history; I was curious if I could add something to this tradition." The result is the new book BIRD from Chronicle Books, a collection of avian photographs stunning for their brilliant simplicity. Here, DISCOVER presents some high-flying highlights.

This scarlet macaw is found in the subtropical rainforests of Central and South America. Individual birds can grow up to three feet in length, with nearly half that length consisting of long, tapered tail feathers.

Zuckerman and his team traveled to places as diverse as Qatar and Pittsburgh and photographed about 90 species of birds. "The most fruitful locations were at the aviaries, where I was able to setup my studio in a large free-flight room and coax the birds to fly across the white set," says Zuckerman.

Here, a behind-the-scenes look at a southern ground hornbill on set. Zuckerman says, "Food was the only tool at my disposal for motivating the birds to pose."

The giant bill of the chestnut-mandibled toucan makes up a third of the bird's body length, but thanks to a honeycomb structure, it's not as heavy as it looks.

Scientists have long been baffled by the purpose of the toucan's most prominent characteristic. Is the oversized bill an advertisement for potential mates? An adaptation for fruit foraging? Or a warning for would-be predators? New research has found at least one practical function: temperature regulation. A network of blood vessels along the surface of the beak helps dissipate extra heat, and the vessels constrict when temperatures drop.

Standing four feet tall on stilt-like legs, the regal secretary bird may appear from a distance to be a crane. In fact, it is a bird of prey that belongs to the same order as hawks, eagles, and vultures. Though an able flyer, it is one of only two species known to hunt exclusively on the ground, snatching up insects, small mammals, and reptiles with its sharp beak or stomping them to death with its strong feet.

From ferocious birds of prey to shy songbirds, Zuckerman has captured our avian neighbors in fascinating new ways. When asked to speculate on why birds are the object of so much fascination, Zuckerman says, "Firstly, they fly, and secondly, they move so quickly that they become ephemeral."

It's easy to see in Zuckerman's work the influence of that most famous of avian portraitists, John James Audubon. "The Audubon collection has always fascinated me specifically because of his ability to strip away context and focus our eyes on the bird itself," Zuckerman says. "The drawings are incredibly detailed, which also amazes me."

American crows are vocal, highly intelligent, and a common sight in urban neighborhoods. Recently, researchers found that crows have the ability to recognize individual human faces, allowing them to remember dangerous persons from past encounters.

Zuckerman isn't trying to show birds in their natural habitat. Instead, with pure white light and high-tech photo equipment that can capture a sliver of time as brief as a 1/8000th of a second, he isolates his subjects' essences. The images give us a chance to see birds, whether common or rare, as never before.

The domestic pigeon, derived from the rock pigeon, is the world's oldest domesticated bird. Pigeons have been bred to serve as messengers across war zones and also as prize-winning specimens of spectacular and oddball plumage. This newly hatched chick (technically called a squab) will take about a month to grow its adult feathers.

From the plebeian pigeon to the rarest bird of all. The Spix's macaw, or the little blue macaw, may be the most endangered bird in the world. The last remaining member of its species known to be living in the wild, a lone male, was discovered in Brazil in 1990, but it has not been seen since 2000.

Approximately 120 individuals now survive in captive breeding programs. Fifty of these are kept in the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation in Qatar where Andrew captured them on film.

The scarlet ibis, like the flamingo, gains its vibrant color from carotene derived from a diet of crustaceans. It uses its long curved bill, equipped with sensitive feelers, to probe for food in shallow waters.

A relative of the scarlet ibis, the sacred ibis, was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians as a symbol of the god Thoth, the scribe of the gods and mediator of godly disputes. Thoth was often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis, and millions of ibis were mummified in his honor.

Like the wattles on chickens, the naked, protruding helmet of the helmeted guineafowl functions as a cooling system by enhancing convective heat loss. The system works so well that the head of a guineafowl often cools much faster than the rest of its body. Luckily, guineafowl brain temperature can vary as much as 11.7 degrees Fahrenheit without apparent harm.

Anyone who has spent much time observing birds can attest to the inaccuracy of "bird brain" as an insult. But one bird often mythologized for its wisdom may not be as brainy as we think. Says Zuckerman: "Actually a fascinating fact is that owls are not particularly wise, due to the size of their eyes taking so much of their brain space. If our eyes were the same ratio as an owl's, we would have softballs for eyes."

The northern white-faced owl is found in Africa between the Equator and the Sahara desert. Thanks to its appearances on Japanese TV shows, it's now most popularly known for its shape-shifting defense mechanism.

A turkey-like bird with a vulture's head, the vulturine guineafowl makes its home in the dry grasslands of northeast Africa. It gleans enough water from the vegetation in its diet that it can survive with virtually no drinking water.

Both sexes sport striking bright blue plumage and white streaks and dots on their back and wing feathers. It can be difficult to tell the sexes apart except for the extra aggression demonstrated by the males.

There's something special in a blue feather. Unlike feathers of other colors, which are pigmented, bright blue feathers, like these on the vulturine guineafowl, are the result of nanoscale structures in the feather barbs. Microscopic air cavities within the feather barbs are arranged just so to allow coherent light scattering [subscription required], creating a blue hue. Green feathers are typically the result of a combination of blue structural color and yellow pigments.

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