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A Room with a View: Bird Nests Catch Eye of Local Photographer

Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 4:00 AM

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When it comes to the world's most beautiful structures, not everyone puts the Taj Mahal or the Kremlin at the top of their list. In fact, one local photographer thinks we need to think a little smaller – and no further than the treetops – to enjoy some of nature's most skilled architectural wonders. Gretchen Cuda reports.

Photo Gallery

Photograph by Judith McMillan Photograph by Judith McMillan Photograph by Judith McMillan

Perched in the crooks of tree branches, woven into marsh reeds, or tucked snugly into a field of tall grasses, you’ll find some of natures most inspiring, and often overlooked architecture – the nests of birds. And if you happen to browse the halls of Cleveland’s Museum of Natural History – you’ll find them there too - captured as art in a photography exhibit titled “Nesting”.  The work is the brainchild of Judith McMillan, who spent months in the museum’s basement, rummaging through the drawers that held a century-old collection of nests.

MCMILLAN:  This Museum must have 10 cabinets full of bird’s nests.  And what’s unusual about our collection is that all the eggs are in the nest.  And the nests are much more interesting when the eggs are in them.

This former third-grade teacher and stay-at-home mom has been a fixture at the museum for more than two decades.  She began as a volunteer helping with the museums live animal demonstrations.  But ultimately decided her calling was art not science.

MCMILLAN: The more I thought about it I realized I’m not a scientist – I like what the things look like.

And so when she decided to go back to school for photography, it was only natural that she began photographing things at the museum

MCMILLAN: They just let me loose and let me randomly go through stuff

She photographed drawers of rats, humming birds and walking sticks – collections of antique medical instruments and even used the museum’s x-ray machine to create photographs of the museum’s botanical specimens. And when she stumbled onto the bird’s nests she knew she had something of value both as science and as art. Judging from the reaction of the crowd at the opening of her exhibit – they do too.

MCMILLAN: I was looking for nests that were different from each other so that you could see that these birds were little architects. And there were so many different kinds of materials used – and then the eggs could be so different.  Some with little tiny speckles, some with different colors some with little calligraphic streaks around them, so it was that variety that I wanted to capture.

All the photographs are in black and white - a deliberate choice she says, so that the viewer wouldn’t be seduced by the color.  She points out some of her favorites.

MCMILLAN: This is a vermillion flycatcher –it’s almost like it’s made of pick up sticks in the way their pushed together. You get the feeling that this bird wanted very particular types of sticks to work with.  Just as you saw the red winged blackbird wanted to work with the stalks of marsh reeds and the brown thrasher wanted to work with grape vine, this bird wanted little knotty twigs ---

She shows me an Orioles nest that’s five inches deep and formerly hung like a basket from a tree.

MCMILLAN: I actually had to shine a flashlight down in it when I was taking the photograph in order to get the eggs to show up.

Most of the nests and eggs were collected around the turn of the 20th century by amateur naturalists who never thought twice about disturbing the natural wildlife.  But the practice eventually fell out of fashion as people became more environmentally conscious.  Large nest and egg collections were later turned over to museums explains Andy Jones, the museums ornithologist.

JONES: People whose grandfathers were dealing with eggs as a hobby, well their grandfathers are passing away and so they contact their local university or natural history museum and say hey do you want these – I’m sure a good number of our specimens have come in that way.

Those specimens, originally collected solely for their beauty, now serve a scientific purpose.  By examining things like the thickness of the shells, or the type and number of birds found in a specific location, researchers can learn about expansion or contraction of territories—or even if a now extinct species once was found here.  McMillan hopes the aesthetic appeal of her work will also inspire a greater appreciation of conservation. 

MCMILLAN: I didn’t understand until I started using a camera myself how you can isolate something and make people look at it differently in a photograph –And I hope through my photographs I’m getting people to take a fresh look at things. It’s hard to have an appreciation of nature unless you really look at it and start to really care about it.

Gretchen Cuda 90.3

The exhibit is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History through July 6th.

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Arts and Culture, Miscellaneous

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