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Picture This: Photographer David Guttenfelder and the plight of the songbird

A whitethroat, en route to winter grounds in Africa, is caught on a lime stick. Image from the July 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.
A whitethroat, en route to winter grounds in Africa, is caught on a lime stick. Image from the July 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.
David Guttenfelder

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David Guttenfelder is best-known for his war photography from places like Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. While on special assignment for National Geographic, he took on a more delicate topic: migrating songbirds.

What he soon discovered is that the widespread slaughter of songbirds for food and amusement conjures up the same emotions as covering war-torn territories. Across the Mediterranean, millions of these winged creatures are being slaughtered for food, for profit, and for sport.

Guttenfelder joins the show to talk about his latest project. 

Interview Highlights: 


On how came to focus on birds as a subject:
"To be honest, I wasn't a bird watcher. I've become one now. It's not my background. I've spent most of my career covering human conflict. I came to this story through National Geographic for the opportunity to do something a little bit different and experience a completely different kind of conflict."

On the conflict in the world of birds:
"We were focusing specifically on what's going on around the Mediterranean. There are roughly 5 billion birds that migrate across twice a year. The situation is shocking to me. There were close to a billion birds that are killed during this passage. Guns, nets, traps, snares and these really horrifying sticky lime sticks that are put in trees and trap birds when they land on their way across the sea."

On the birds being targeted and why:
"It's the broadest number of species you can imagine, from the tiniest songbirds, warblers, to raptors, to highly threatened endangered waders. People kill them primarily for food. It's a tradition in much of the Mediterranean. People kill them for sport, people kill them because it's very, very profitable. Even the tiniest of songbirds in Europe are sold as delicacies for a very high price, as much as $10 for one bird on a plate."

On what he felt when he took photos of trapped birds:
"My first experience in seeing many of these species for the first time in real life was to see them hanging and struggling and desperately trying to release themselves from this glue. Breaking their wings, ripping off their flight feathers, it's a really shocking thing to see. I was working with environmental activists who were trying to do a number of things, and the most immediate thing they were doing was pulling them down and releasing them."

On activists putting birds in their mouth to wash sap off:
"When they pull the birds down, if the birds have not already injured themselves, or haven't been hanging too long and can be set free, they have to first be cleaned. It turns out the best way to do that is to actually put the bird in your mouth. The tree sap is sweet and dissolves on your tongue, so the activists would put the feet of the birds into their mouth and suck on them. I did this too, a couple of times while I was photographing them, mainly, but I did it as well when there were just too many birds and [the activists] needed help. It's a life-affirming thing to do, to help a bird in that way."

On the irony of getting these beautiful shots while the birds are trapped:
"That's true. I'm looking at these birds and I'm studying them very closely. I can see all the colors, I can touch them, it's an unusual look at a bird. But then you stop and remind yourself that birds aren't supposed to be like this. The reason that we love birds is that they're free and the glimpses that we have of them are fleeting."

Oh his colleagues' reaction to this bird photographing project:
"I've developed a certain identity as 'that guy,' so my friends, who were all in Syria the year I was in Albania and Egypt photographing songbirds, were saying, 'Hey, what's going on? You're a bird photographer now.' Some of my hardened war photographers gave me a hard time, but my answer to them was that I had discovered that this was a war of its own kind."

On how his experience with human conflict helped him photograph the birds:
"I was asked to do this because of my background. I went to places where I had to befriend men with weapons in the middle of the desert. In Cyprus, the activists who were out there trying to dismantle the limesticks and the mist nets and confronting the poachers, some of them were attacked. Some were grievously injured. I have to say, over many years of working and covering war, covering people doing terrible things to one another, I think you develop a thick skin. You can become a bit cynical, and surprisingly, me going out in the field, taking a look at little birds, I think it made me take my thick skin off for a moment."