During the pandemic, the photographer Maureen Ruddy Burkhart found herself taking long walks through the “pockets” of nature sprinkled throughout her Denver suburb. “On one particular morning, I noticed a dead tree ‘vibrating,’” she tells me. “Upon inspection, I saw that it was covered with baby swallows waiting for food.”
She’d been watching the swallows for a while now, their golden bellies catching the light of early morning as they swooped to catch mosquitos in the grasses below. Her daily walks grew slower, as she paused to observe the birds. After finding this family of swallows, she returned, as spring turned to summer. “I learned to predict when the mother or father was approaching with food because the babies would do a funny dance with their tails and their wings would flap rapidly,” she remembers.
But then the city sprayed for mosquitos. “A man in an unmarked electric cart with a hose approached and went about spraying for mosquitos without any warning,” Ruddy Burkhart says. She could tell it was an insecticide from the smell in the air. “The very next morning, the swallows were gone,” the artist remembers. “As I like to say: no food, no birds.”
Ruddy Burkhart’s birds aren’t the only ones affected by pesticide use. In 2020, a study published in Nature Sustainability revealed that the US and Canada had lost 29% of their birds since 1970, with that decline linked to cropland expansion and pesticide use. Researchers estimated that grassland bird populations declined by 4% annually from 2008 to 2014, and insect-eating birds by 3%, due to the use of neonicotinoids, a kind of pesticide. Over half of counties in the US lost more than 10% of their grassland birds during that period.
But not all hope is lost. In the United States, pesticides brought the brown pelican in the United States to the brink of extinction; a ban on DDT and other dangerous pesticides allowed for their recovery. And as it happened, Ruddy Burkhart’s family of swallows was lucky. They survived, and she found them at another lake. By September of last year, the babies were almost fully grown.
Still, the landscape had changed, and the artist noticed. “Since many fish depend on mosquitos for food, even the fish-eaters became scarce,” she recalls. “Eventually, some birds returned, like the pelicans, egrets, and herons.” She continued to photograph the birds on her walks as part of Evanescence: for things that are fleeting or quickly disappearing, her ode to the natural world during a time of loss and uncertainty.
She observed the birds, learned their habits, and watched their body language. She respected their space, first and foremost. At the same time, she saw the ways in which human activity put the landscape and its inhabitants at risk. “I often see dogs off-leash and it breaks my heart,” Ruddy Burkhart admits. “Once I passed a snapping turtle laying eggs beside the trail. I quickly turned around, but not before someone’s dog got to them.”
Ruddy Burkhart is a photo-based artist, and her work isn’t done when she’s captured a moment. It’s only just begun, with the creative process continuing at home. “For this series, I shoot with a DSLR and use Lightroom and Photoshop, where I often utilize multiple shots to ‘create’ a landscape that is still integral to its original scene (being mindful of the type and direction of the lighting, for example),” she explains. “I then add texture while utilizing layering and masking techniques to emphasize the birds.”
For that reason, Evanescence exists at the boundary line between reality and fiction, immortalizing the astonishing beauty of her avian muses while also transporting them to someplace new. “My goal is to create an almost fantasy-like world–a place where creatures can still live their best lives,” she tells me. In her pictures, at least, these “pockets” of wilderness will remain intact, and the birds will be free.
All images © Maureen Ruddy Burkhart