Todd R. Forsgren’s beautifully lit, perfectly framed photos invariably shock, even anger, those who see them. They show birds tangled in netting, caught in mid-flight. Some appear frightened, others injured. But each is perfectly fine, and their captors mean them no harm.

Biologists caught each bird using “mist-netting,” a technique that dates to ancient Japan, then carefully measured, weighed and tagged it. While there hasn’t been a ton of research on its absolute safety, scientists report very little injury or death. “Most people gasp when they first see the images: they think it’s an environmental tragedy of some sort that I’m documenting, like dolphins or sea turtles getting caught in fishing nets,” Forsgren says.

The project grew from a lifelong obsession with birds. Forsgren attended bird camps, birding competitions, and started a bird website in high school. Then he studied ecology in college before changing to art history. “When I switched to the arts, it was just a matter of time before I figured out how I wanted to portray birds,” he says.

Ornithological Photographs, Daylight Books, 2015.Ornithological Photographs, Daylight Books, 2015.

Forsgren spent eight years visiting five countries and photographing 400 birds, 57 of which appear in Ornithological Photographs. He started shooting the project in Massachusetts in 2006, and wrapped it up in Brazil last year. Forsgren worked alongside biologists doing field research, watching them erect fence-like nets to capture the birds. Sometimes they simply wait for birds to fly into them; other times, they’ll attract them using bird calls. Every hour or so, they check the nets. Each bird is carefully, almost lovingly, removed and slipped into a cotton bag. A researcher then carries the bird to a nearby research station, where it is measured, weighed, and its leg fitted with a tiny aluminum anklet. Then it is released.

Forsgren worked quickly, getting his shot in no more than 15 minutes with a technique he called “essentially guerrilla studio photography.” He used a large format camera positioned three feet away from the birds, a white cloth background, a soft box, and a reflector. Some birds remained still, while others struggled. Forsgren refrained from photographing any birds that seemed excessively distressed, but says every bird he photographed flew away without apparent injury.

The photographer drew inspiration from the classic paintings and sketches of John James Audubon and other ornithologists, and it shows in his work. The images have an illustrative quality, with colorful, shimmering feathers contrasted against the black net and white backgrounds. From the understated spot-breasted Wren to the more exotic keel-billed Toucan, there’s an elegance to the portraits. Forsgren hopes the startling images lead people to a greater understanding of the need for conservation. “I certainly think the research is a good thing, even if I’m depicting one of it’s most difficult moments,” he says. “I’m depicting it [as] beautiful, but not hiding any of that challenging side of it either.”

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These Birds Aren’t in Trouble—It’s Just Science in Action