“There’s an endless stream of terrible news about the planet. I try to show the beauty and joy of birds, and in shifting our focus onto them I believe we can achieve so much through optimism and love as opposed to being frozen by fear.”
Art as activism it is not, but Leila Jeffreys has spent the past 12 years photographing the birds she’d like to receive more attention than a passing upward glance or a Netflix-style five minutes of fame. From endangered parrots to convalescing cockatoos, rare doves to domestic budgies, she has traveled to California and the Arctic Circle from her home in Sydney, Australia, to take portraits of her avian subjects, quirks and all, and exhibit them as fine art in the Australian capital, London and New York.
Her mission is to help reverse the decline of endangered species, encouraging state and government funding programs and on a grass roots level, volunteering and donations. Her method? To highlight our uncanny similarities and our exquisite differences to birds. She blows the prints up to a human scale to reveal some very relatable attributes - inquiring eyes, inquisitive turns of the head and in the cockatoo’s case, a rye perma-smile. But her shallow depth of field captures the delicate essence of their anatomy as if under a microscope: the brilliance of tail feathers, the pin-sharp texture of down and the architecture of the character defining beaks.
“The works are quite emotional. I try to connect people by their heart strings. If you’re connected and you care, you’re more likely to change your behavior to do the right thing for wildlife.”
She works on three-year cycles, ready to drop everything and fly to rescue centers, zoos and breeding programs for an audience with a new arrival. For her latest exhibition, which has just opened at Olsen Gruin in New York’s Lower East Side, she wanted to shoot flocks for the first time and knew that budgies would play ball. With sea eagles and gannets already in the bag, her next show about sea birds is lined up for 2022, as long as she lands an albatross by then. “Sea birds are really at the forefront of a lot of the trouble that’s going on. Single use plastic is one thing that we can change really quickly.”
Here, she shares the stories of some of her favorite subjects from her archive.
ORANGE BELLIED PARROT
“This tiny little bird is critically endangered. There is something like only 30 left in the wild. It breeds in Southwest Wilderness moorlands of Tasmania and migrates hundreds of miles to mainland Australia crossing Bass Strait which is one of the most treacherous stretches of ocean. It’s crazy when you discover they are only 20 centimeters long and weigh about 1.5 ounces. The adults depart first in Spring and the fledglings a few weeks later. The reason for their decline is we have drained their wetlands for grazing, and exploited their salt marshes for industrial and urban development. Now their habitats have predators like foxes and feral cats. When I was invited to shoot this parrot at a captive breeding program at the Moonlit Sanctuary, southeast of Melbourne, he was about to be released to join the wild population. They got him flying-fit but released him young in the hope that the older ones would show him how to migrate. I named him Blue.
This flightless, nocturnal parrot is the heaviest parrot in the world. For its mating call it creates this booming sound by inflating itself like a balloon. But they only mate every three to four years, when there’s this particular fruit on the tree, so it’s basically the panda of the bird world. They’re really rare, a protected population only found on some offshore islands in the south of New Zealand. The scientists split them over three islands and work out which mums are the best at raising chicks. They give them the eggs from other young mums not doing such a good job to increase the chances of survival. This one’s name is Sirocco. The shoot was really intense: I had to wash my hair, wear a special suit, special boots and triple sterilize my equipment. The setup was his favourite tree stump where he would have his dinner. There was no light because he is nocturnal. I was super nervous When he first saw me he could tell there was some tension in the air so he walked straight out. I was like, “oh, its over.” But once he could see things had calmed down, he came back, got up onto his stump and I got my portrait.
BLEEDING HEART DOVE
I wanted to do a show about doves and pigeons because people think they know what a dove or a pigeon is. But this show in 2017 demonstrated the diversity of the species (they are one and the same) which goes way beyond city vermin or a symbol of peace. I worked out of Taronga Zoo in Sydney with about 20 species from Australasia, including birds from Philippines, Papa New Guinea and New Zealand. It’s a world leader in what a modern zoo should be, in terms of its captive breeding programs and conservation work. I shot a lot of these birds there because they were too rare to access through normal wildlife organizations. The bleeding heart dove was a highlight because it is very shy and only found on three islands in the Northern Philippines.
Seisa is a palm cockatoo, found in the top end of Australia, and their numbers are in trouble. In Australia they hadn’t bred a “palm cock” in captivity since 1975 and she was the first, at Adelaide Zoo. Because she was young she was quite shy but she was curious. By the end she was really trusting and sweet, and nuzzling my leg. When they are alarmed, they drop the feathers on their cheeks to show how scary they are. In this shot she was calm and happy. Cockatoos are a bit of an underdog. Their numbers are declining hugely because we have cleared so much of their habitat. They’re shot by farmers because they steal grain, or they are hit by cars, or pushed out of their nest by the bully birds – they’re actually quite gentle. I did a whole show photographing every species of cockatoo in Australia in 2012. They really made me laugh, they’re real performers and people really responded to that.”
GHOSTLY BARN OWL
Ava is a barn owl who fell out of her nest in Southern California. Ava’s parents had tried to nest in an unsuitable palm tree –they need deep hollows for nesting but the appropriate trees had been cleared. It was high winds and the nest wasn’t deep enough so and she and her brother fell 70 feet. I was volunteering at the Ojai Raptor Center at the time. They gave her an assessment and it turned out she only had minor injuries. They entrusted her to two resident adult barn owls that through injury could not be released (what they call permanent care birds). But as surrogates they can raise the orphans until they fledge and they are released. The Ojai center does so much incredible work. If a bird comes in dead they will remove the tail feathers. If that same species comes in injured and without feathers, they can insert the feathers into the shaft of the missing ones. When they malt, the new feathers grow back. It’s crazy stuff.
Australasian gannets are not particularly beautiful birds but they are character birds. I named this one Chicken because towards the end of the shoot he started showing off by lifting his foot. He was banded so the center knew he was meant to be in New Zealand but he got caught in a storm and washed up on the shores of the Sunshine Coast in Northern Australia. They didn’t think he’d survive. He wasn’t in the best feather condition—see how he has sparse but beautiful, scalloped feathers. These kinds of birds should be very tight feathered. What that says is he wasn’t very well waterproofed. He needed to be rehabilitated, not only to recover his feathers but his weight and muscle strength before being released at the appropriate migration time.
I picked budgies for my latest show because I got obsessed with the idea of photographing a flock in a tree. I thought which birds are going to be comfortable in groups, and in a studio environment? When they are a bonded pair they are very affectionate so I knew that they would photograph well in couples. One pair, River and Cloudy, were kissing and kissing and so into each other they did not care about me at all. You can tell the boys by the blue seers (nostrils) and girls by the pink seers. Juveniles all have pink seers.
Technically photographing more than one bird is very complicated; if one of the birds is too far back- or forwards, one will be out of focus. I asked my friend’s young daughters to name all the birds in the show and they have a sweetness to them that only a child’s imagination could come up with – Celery, Candle, Pineapple, Rain. They have something so intrinsically magical about them and it marries so perfectly with this show.