Photographer Art Fox Shares ‘Broken Journey’ of Migratory Birds

Each year, millions of migratory birds pass through northeastern Illinois on their way to summer breeding grounds. But thousands won't make it. They will become victims of what's called window kill.

A photography exhibit at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum called "Broken Journey" showcases some of the exotic and beautiful birds killed here. And the hope is that awareness will help keep these beautiful – and in some cases rare – creatures alive.

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Photos of birds, pictured clockwise from left: a cedar waxwing, a song sparrow and a summer tanager. (Art Fox)Photos of birds, pictured clockwise from left: a cedar waxwing, a song sparrow and a summer tanager. (Art Fox)


Eddie Arruza: They're birds that many of us never see. But they visit Chicago every year and many of them meet a sad fate as they travel through the city.

Art Fox, photographer: This bird died on my balcony in 2014 after hitting the windows.

Arruza: From the steely gray, dark-eyed junco to the regal cedar waxwing, Chicago is on the flight path of dozens of migratory birds – some of which traverse from the northern reaches of Canada to the southern tip of South America. But the lights, heights and reflections of Chicago's buildings often stop them literally dead in their tracks.

A common yellowthroat. (Art Fox)A common yellowthroat. (Art Fox)

Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology at Notebaert Nature Museum: When you're flying along as a bird during the day and you see a pane of glass in front of you, that glass is often reflecting trees and sky. So as a bird, you think that's trees and sky, when in fact it's a solid wall that you're going to smack into.

At night, the light comes out of these windows, and as a bird you think they're stars. But in fact they're a trap where you get stuck in this circle of light, and by morning drop out of the sky from exhaustion.

Arruza: An exhibit at the Peggy Notebeart Nature Museum in Chicago showcases many of the migratory birds that traverse the Chicago area. But these stunning portraits are all of birds that have been found dead in the city.

The exhibit is called "Broken Journey" and the images are by Chicago photographer Art Fox who calls himself a serious amateur. He says he was inspired to do a gallery of birds after finding the dead summer tanager on his balcony not long after he had seen a book of paintings on the subject of the ill-fated flights of migratory birds. 

  • Yellow-shafted flicker (Art Fox)

    Yellow-shafted flicker (Art Fox)

  • Song sparrow (Art Fox)

    Song sparrow (Art Fox)

  • Summer tanager (Art Fox)

    Summer tanager (Art Fox)

  • Tennessee warbler (Art Fox)

    Tennessee warbler (Art Fox)

  • Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Art Fox)

    Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Art Fox)

  • Indigo bunting (Art Fox)

    Indigo bunting (Art Fox)

  • Connecticut warbler (Art Fox)

    Connecticut warbler (Art Fox)

  • Baltimore oriole (Art Fox)

    Baltimore oriole (Art Fox)

  • Blackburnian warbler (Art Fox)

    Blackburnian warbler (Art Fox)

  • Canada warbler (Art Fox)

    Canada warbler (Art Fox)

  • Cedar waxwing (Art Fox)

    Cedar waxwing (Art Fox)

  • Chimney swift (Art Fox)

    Chimney swift (Art Fox)

  • Common yellowthroat (Art Fox)

    Common yellowthroat (Art Fox)

  • Dark-eyed junco (Art Fox)

    Dark-eyed junco (Art Fox)

Fox: I felt that they were sort of alive even though they obviously weren't. And they're so incredibly beautiful and exotic to this area. We would never see these outside of a window in the West Loop where I live, for example, but they're coming through and we just don't realize it.

Arruza: Fox's oversize photos hang beside silhouettes of the birds showing their actual size. Fox says each image incorporates dozens of exposures that were later assembled not only to provide rich detail of the birds but also to make them appear as if they're ready to take flight again.

Fox: I learned how to pose the birds a little bit so that they wouldn't appear to be quite as much laboratory specimens. It was a combination of respect for the beauty and some sadness, just that this creature was in my hands instead of doing what it should be doing.

Arruza: The nature museum's new photo exhibit complements a separate permanent exhibit of taxidermied birds that are among the many species to be found in the Chicago area. A number of birds in the collection were victims of window collisions or disorientation.

Sullivan: This is one of our beautiful woodpeckers – a yellow-shafted flicker. You can see its beautiful yellow linings here, and they have very stiff tail feathers so they can prop up against trees as they do their woodpecking. But unfortunately, yellow-shafted flickers can run into windows just like any other bird can, and this one died on a skyscraper and was mounted and preserved as part of our scientific collections.

Arruza: For the last 20 years, the city of Chicago has encouraged mostly downtown buildings to turn off or dim lights at night to reduce the number of birds that become disoriented as they mistake office lights for the stars they use to navigate. But disorientation and collisions still happen every day, and a network of volunteers from the Chicago Bird Collision Montiors comb the streets from early spring to late autumn to try to resuce survivors.

Some species appear to be particularly vulnerable.

 A song sparrow. (Art Fox) A song sparrow. (Art Fox)

Sullivan: We do know that some rare species such as cuckoos and some owls are dramatically declining within cities, and we can attribute part of that to window collisions.

Arruza: But it's not just the lights and window reflections from high-rises that contribute to bird casualties. They can happen on any building or home. A number of bird-friendly window products are now on the market, including window glass with a built-in design that's invisible to humans.

But bird advocates also say less costly window films or even homemade designs can help prevent collisions. Fox says he hopes his portraits help to magnify the problem by showing the beauty and majesty of one member of a species.

Fox: Thousands of birds die every year this way, but to see one up close is maybe more impactful then hearing a big number.

Arruza: And maybe his photo exhibit can help save the journey of many other birds.

The exhibit "Broken Journey: Photography by Art Fox" is on view at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. For hours, prices and more information, visit the museum's website.

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