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#72: For The Love of Birds

We became Facebook friends and last July when I was visiting the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, where she lives, we had dinner. Melissa is a tall, statuesque, striking blonde. She grew up on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, but since then has lived from California to Paris to Santa Fe, doing everything from working on Wall Street to teaching learning disabled children to learning the silversmith trade. In one of her later incarnations she worked as researcher for a few years for a Rockefeller Foundation school reform initiative in Cleveland, Ohio. One evening in l999 she heard famed elephant and whale researcher Katy Payne give a talk on the infrasonic communication of elephants; immensely moved, she decided she was going to find a way to work for Katy, and to study these animals which had always fascinated her. Katy, based at Cornell, hired her as a researcher for the newly formed Elephant Listening Project and took her for two field seasons to Dzanga Bai, the clearing in the rain forest of southern Central African Republic where they recorded the sounds and behaviors of the little known African forest elephant. They lived at scientist Andrea Turkalo’s camp. I describe the magical clearing and Andrea, the great lady who is its custodian keeping that area’s elephants alive, in my elephant piece.

In 2003, Melissa took a course in birdwatching at the Lab of Ornithology, and was immediately hooked. A couple years ago she picked up a camera and began to try to capture them in images. She has been taking extraordinary photographs of birds. Here are some of them, with her accompanying text. A remarkable lady. She’s going up to Canada in a couple weeks to find snowy and short-eared owls to photograph. Her pictures are unlike any bird photos I’ve ever seen. They really give you a sense of the individual quirky bird she is taking the picture of, not just that this is a loon or a rose-breasted grosbeak. The individuality of other animal species is underappreciated. I think you’ll agree that these images really convey what extraordinarily beautiful and graceful creatures birds are.

By Melissa Groo

Look around you. There are lives of grace and glory being led in the trees that arch above you, the bushes that line your yard, the ever-changing skies overhead.

Ring-Billed Gull

Composed of fine feathers, delicate bones, and possessing remarkable agility, these creatures are found everywhere.


Blue Jay

Until only a few years ago, I took barely any notice of birds; I was drawn instead to large charismatic mammals of the whale and elephant variety, traveling far afield to see them in the wild. Now it is birds that I constantly search the landscape for, whether at home or on my travels. One of the attractions of birds is that they are everywhere; one has only to look around to see them.


Forster’s Tern

What changed for me? I took a beginning birding class at the nearby Cornell Lab of Ornithology and suddenly there was a whole new dimension to my world. And this dimension would draw me to out to the fields, woods, and lakes that make up my central New York environment.



Now I am by no means an expert birder, and I may never be. But what I am is a great admirer of their beauty and grace, and an appreciator of their daily struggles. Through my photography, I aim to seize a moment of their splendid lives and share it with others who may not have the time, opportunity, or inclination to observe what I can.

I aim to illuminate not only their beauty but also an essential aspect of their lives. To suggest that birds are individuals, with unique “personalities” that can be revealed by observing them over a period of time. They may have favorite perches, unique strategies for foraging, particular anomalies in their songs. Am I guilty of anthropomorphizing at times? Absolutely.


Double-crested Cormorant

Birds lead lives of extreme hardship. Besides the vagaries of harsh weather, the devastating predation by household cats, birds must contend with decreasing habitat, and ever-increasing radio towers and skyscrapers that millions of birds in transit around the world crash into every year.


Great Blue Herons Migrating in Fall

Many birds migrate thousands of miles in spring and in fall, and must face a daunting number of dangers along the way.


Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Did you know that the ruby-throated hummingbird flies almost 2000 miles from the northeast US to its wintering grounds in Mexico and points south?


Northern Cardinal in Winter

And that birds who do not migrate and spend the winter here have an average annual survival rate only 20-50% because of the hardship of winter?

More than anything I am in awe of the beauty of birds. There is an endless variety of colors, bill shapes, and body sizes. There are over 10,000 species of birds in the world.

At times I am astonished by the vivid color of some….


Roseate Spoonbill


Reddish Egret White Morph


Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

..the iridescence of others….


Common Loon


Common Grackle

..the textures at play in some species’ feathers…



…and the dramatic lines of a bird in flight.


Bald Eagle

There is a sensuality in their lines and forms that I find utterly seductive…



…and at times an almost graphic quality to their bodies and postures.


Brown Pelican

There is an ineluctable mystery to the lives of birds that I struggle to convey. I often think of one of my favorite quotes in relation to them, by Henry Beston:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals….For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”


Juvenile Bald Eagle

This sense of mystery moves me deeply and urges me on, in my quest to capture and share the wonder of birds.


Black-Crowned Night Heron


Sharp-Shinned Hawk

I want to share one last image with you, of a pair of scarlet tanagers I found one spring day, lying lifeless by a neighbor’s sliding glass door. The male (red) must have been chasing the female (yellow), and they both hit the glass and broke their necks. I was profoundly moved by the loss of a possibly mating pair of a species that I had rarely seen. I posed their bodies together and took a photograph, thinking that at the very least I could memorialize them.


Scarlet Tanagers

So, please—slap a decal on your sliding glass doors and windows, fill a feeder, keep your household cats indoors during nesting/fledging season. Buy some binoculars. And appreciate the grace and glory around you.

For more of Melissa Groo’s photography, please see her web site at http://www.melissagroo.com

For more on birds, a short reading list:

The Sibley Guide to Birds
David Allen Sibley, Knopf

Sibley’s Birding Basics
David Allen Sibley, Knopf

Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America
Kenn Kaufman, Houghton Mifflin

The Bird Watching Answer Book
Laura Erickson, Workman Publishing Company

All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology


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