House Sparrow. Photo: George McKenzie Jr.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided photographers all over the country with the opportunity to view nature through a new lens—one aimed intensively at their own homes. We asked three professional photographers to document the birdlife around them during their stay-at-home orders. Beginning today and over the next few weeks, we will publish their images, as well as a personal essay reflecting on each photographer's experience. We also plan to feature a selection of reader submissions in a future article, so share your own photos for the Bird From Home project on Instagram and other platforms by tagging them with #BirdFromHome. —The Editors 

Photography

Birds Led Me Through Uncertainty and Outrage to an Oasis in New York City

A photographer was well acquainted with the city's pigeons and rats. Now he's gained a new appreciation for other urban wildlife.

I was lying in bed, starting season 6 of Law & Order, when an alert notified me that I had received a new email. The message was from Audubon magazine, asking me if I wanted to take part in their #BirdFromHome project and document birds and other wildlife around my home in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. I was surprised and excited because, yes! A publication was looking to give assignments to photographers during this time of uncertainty in the world. 

As a wildlife photographer, my assignments usually take me far from New York City. But COVID-19 put travel on pause, and I’d been filling my days working through all 456 episodes of the police procedural drama. The only outside noises I’d been paying attention to were the sirens from the ambulances picking up my neighbors affected by this pandemic. Some, like Mr. Tony—who always encouraged me to work for the Department of Sanitation like him (“George, it’s decent hours, good pay, and you get a pension.”)—never made it back home. 

Spurred by my new assignment, I began to notice more wildlife out my window. Mention New York City and nature to most people, and they’ll think: rats and pigeons. In fact, those industrious rodents and smart birds are some of my favorite subjects. And now I started to meet new ones. I woke up to chirping House Sparrows, showy Northern Mockingbirds, garrulous European Starlings, and lyrical American Robins talking among themselves, loud as they could be. I sat on my stoop and monitored their behavior, and quickly picked up on their patterns. 

Every morning the birds would start singing on my street before sunrise. As the early morning waned, they would gradually disappear. I followed after them, and discovered that they were moving a few blocks south, to my community garden—an oasis in my patch of concrete jungle that I didn’t even know existed.

The garden was closed due to the pandemic, but the keyholder, Herb, noticed me using the chain-link fence as a blind two days in a row and offered to open it up to me. Herb has lived next door to the garden for years and would join me sometimes, regaling me from six feet away with stories of all the birds he had seen in this greenspace—like the Blue Jay that visited last year, and the pair of hawks that used the garden as their own personal supermarket.

Spending multiple days in the garden, I formed some memories of my own. I watched in amusement the groups of starlings that gathered on the fence, jockeying as more arrived or left, for what I can only assume were prized positions. I was even chased by an American Robin I inadvertently startled, reminding me to turn my camera to silent mode while making images. 

While I reveled in my discovery of the oasis and the birds that find refuge there, I looked for animals in other areas of my neighborhood, too. I visited one of my favorite pigeon haunts, and saw a huge flock sitting on the apartment buildings. I started snapping when a neighbor walked by and tossed out what looked to be a 20-pound bag of birdseed, sending the birds into a feeding frenzy. They devoured every morsel in 10 minutes. 

I also made a new friend I call Tommy, a squirrel that lives in the neighborhood. Every time I tried to make an image, he’d blink. It took me more than two weeks to get a decent shot, but my patience led to yet another discovery. During that time, Tommy had babies, so I re-named her Theresa.

These experiences have been bright spots in what started as an uncertain spring due to COVID-19 and has become an exhausting and infuriating time in recent weeks. I was working on this assignment when Amy Cooper called the cops on Christian Cooper because he wanted her to follow the rules that we all have to follow in Central Park. That could have been me: I’m a Black man who goes out looking for birds. When I’m outdoors working as a conservation photographer, I’m commonly asked: “What are you doing here?” I’m all too aware that, for simply making a white person uncomfortable with my presence, I could end up in cuffs. Or worse, like George Floyd. 

I’m tired of seeing people that look like me have their lives taken by people who are supposed to protect us. I’m angry that systemic racism continues to be a poison in our society that marks Black people as dangerous just for the color of our skin and dehumanizes us. I’m scared thinking of my nieces’ and nephews’ safety. I hope that this chapter, marked by widespread protests and outrage, sparks a change that turns the tide of racism in this country. I’m doubtful, and yet I want it to be true. I need it to be true for the next generation.

There has been so much loss and change this spring, but there have also been gains. I had the amazing experience of finding birds thriving while we’re in a state of pause during this pandemic, and I will carry that forward with me. I’m more patient while I’m in the field, more willing to wait for scenes to unfold. I also feel more connected to my community since meeting other people in my neighborhood who are into birds. Now I get out of bed early in the morning to join my next-door neighbor on the sidewalk, where we watch the pigeons and sparrows eat the birdseed we scatter for them. It’s cut into my Law & Order time, but finishing the series can wait.

Self-portrait of the photographer. Photo: George McKenzie Jr.
Common Grackle. Photo: George McKenzie Jr.
Rock Pigeons. Photo: George McKenzie Jr.
Northern Mockingbird. Photo: George McKenzie Jr.
House Sparrows. Photo: George McKenzie Jr.
Northern Mockingbird. Photo: George McKenzie Jr.
Photo: George McKenzie Jr.
American Robin. Photo: George McKenzie Jr.
Rock Pigeons. Photo: George McKenzie Jr.
European Starling. Photo: George McKenzie Jr.
House Sparrow. Photo: George McKenzie Jr.