Human Hands Hold the Fate of These Fragile Birds

A Dutch shelter rehabilitates birds that have fallen victim to the hazards of urban living. 

Since 2009, city dwellers have been more numerous than their rural counterparts. And as humans continue to flock to urban areas, birds are following right behind, for better or worse.

Populated areas offer birds a lot of amenities—easy access to food, warmth, nesting sites, and protection from predators. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch, even for our feathered friends. When Dutch photographer Anjés Gesink started volunteering as a “feeding mom” at Vogelklas Karel Schot bird shelter in Rotterdam, she saw firsthand that cities create deadly hazards for birds.

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Eurasian coot; cause of injury: coated in oil

While Gesink spent her evenings in a room filled with the sound of squawking, feeding orphaned chicks every 15 to 30 minutes, the dangerous implications of humans and birds sharing space became personal. She met residents like a Eurasian coot whose feathers were covered in oil and a pigeon whose wings were cut by a human.

(Oddly enough, as Gesink filled the role of mama bird, a slew of white storks were admitted to the shelter during the first month of her pregnancy. “It was as many as normally come in over an entire year,” she says of the symbolic coincidence.)

About six months after she started volunteering at the shelter Gesink was inspired to document the recovering individuals. “Every season, different types of birds are brought in with different kinds of injuries,” she says. “I decided to photograph them for a whole year so I could make a comprehensive overview of the problems city birds have to deal with.” At the end of the year, she had photographed over a hundred birds.

What makes her images so striking is the bold, antiseptically-gloved hand that holds each bird. At first, Gesink planned to make the portraits without any sign of a human touch, but she soon realized that without the glove, the picture would be incomplete. “The glove tells the story of human care, and on the other side, it represents the strong influence of human intervention in the city bird’s life … and their injuries.”

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Mute swan; cause of injury: caught in a muskrat trap

The shelter does all it can to rehabilitate its residents, but it has its limits. “We are a shelter for wild birds [who can eventually be] released back into the wild again,” she says. “Often we receive birds with severe injuries that are beyond treatment. A lot of fractured wings will not heal 100 percent, which makes it impossible for the bird to fly long distances, capture prey, or evade predators. In such cases, we quickly end unnecessary suffering. No animals are kept for educative purposes or long and hopeless treatments. Sometimes, we have to make hard choices.”

But amid the strife are moments of victory. Ideally, the birds stay at the shelter for as short a time as possible (“As soon as we consider a wild bird healthy, we try to release it,” she says), but that’s long enough for the staff and volunteers to witness inspiring recovery—to see a story unfold that makes all the work worthwhile.

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Pied avocet; cause of injury: orphaned

For Gesink, this triumphant moment came in the form of a pied avocet. “[He] came in when he was really young. We don’t get them often, and if we do they almost never survive,” she says. “We were able to return him to nature again, which is really rare for this species. And I was there when we set him free! After he walked to the water, he flew away very quickly.

Anjés Gesink is a photographer living in Rotterdam. She still volunteers her time at Vogelklas Karel Schot bird shelter. See more of her work on her website

Becky Harlan is an associate photo editor for National Geographic. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter