Livingston photographer focuses on birds in new book | Wild montana


An eagle ignored by its mother is pictured as it prepares to bite the feathers of its mother’s tail to get her attention. Taking pictures of eagles in Minnesota led Livingston photographer Tom Murphy to decide to publish a book about birds.

Tom Murphy, courtesy photo

Weaver birds in Rwanda tie knots to build their nests, an example of bird behavior that has long fascinated Tom Murphy.

“The old idea that animals can’t make tools… let’s see you building a nest with your lips,” he said.

People who poo-poo birds aren’t very intelligent, missing out on the many adaptations animals have to specialized tasks and feats, Murphy said.

“They’re doing all kinds of amazing things that we can’t do,” he noted, like raptors that can see the ultraviolet reflections in mice urine in order to hunt them down.


Two Great Owls of Wyoming snuggle up on a branch about a month after leaving their nest.

Tom Murphy, courtesy photo


This summer, as a tribute to birds and to open people’s minds to creatures, Murphy published a book in which he has put decades of his avian photography from around the world – “Birds: Masters of the Air, Land & Water” – published by Livingston’s Crystal Creek Press.

The 200-page coffee table book includes essays by Doug Smith, a Yellowstone National Park wolf biologist who took over the Yellowstone Bird Program, and New York Times author and reporter Jim Robbins. Proceeds from the sale of the book will benefit raptor conservation and wildlife research in Yellowstone National Park.

Because the book is so big, 11.5 inches wide by 13 inches long and an inch thick, Murphy joked that he considered selling it with four little legs so it could serve as a real coffee table.

“If I had still had six months, it would probably still have 100 pages,” Murphy said.


The variety of feathers that birds grow perform functions as diverse as flight, insulation and waterproofing. These feathers come from a black chinned sparrow.

Tom Murphy, courtesy photo


Murphy, 71, is perhaps best known for his photography work in Yellowstone National Park, an area he loved after an excursion in 1975. It was then that he took a hike from Yellowstone Lake to Cooke City via the remote Pelican Valley. He traveled about 60 miles in five days, seeing only four people along the way.

At the time, the Park Service told him that it had marked the last available campsite in the backcountry, where a permit is required.

Considering how few people he saw when the backcountry was “full,” Murphy decided this was his kind of place and moved from the family ranch to South Dakota. Ten years later he got the first permit to conduct photographic tours in Yellowstone, and since then he has been paid to visit a place he loves.

“It looks like a really good racquet,” he joked.

American Kestrel

A male kestrel holds a mouse as it prepares to feed a baby bird. This continues for about two months after the birds hatch.

Tom Murphy, courtesy photo


The new book took off after Murphy began visiting a bald eagle nest located along Minnesota’s St. Croix River in 2015, just outside Andersen Corp’s window factory. In a booth erected atop one of the window company’s buildings, he would sit for a week at a time, for three years, to capture the behavior of birds and their chicks in a nearby nest.

Previously, most of his photographs of bald eagles consisted of snapshots of them in flight or diving to catch fish. Observing the daily behavior of birds ignited Murphy’s curiosity and kindled the fire for his latest book.

Fittingly, the book’s cover photo shows a bald eagle. Several pages at the end of the book feature some of Murphy’s shots from these tree milestones.

His advice to those who want to take pictures of birds is to be outside early and late in the day and learn the animal’s behavior. He takes most of his photos with a 500mm lens for the simple fact that he doesn’t like carrying heavier and more expensive gear.

American magpie

Magpies are one of Tom Murphy’s favorite birds to observe and interact with in his home. The birds gather in small groups called news.

Tom Murphy, courtesy photo


One of the most interesting examples of unusual bird behavior occurred when Murphy was walking down a street in his hometown of Livingston without his camera. A young magpie had been hit by a car and was lying crushed on the sidewalk.

About six magpies flew to the intersection, dropping to about 20 as Murphy got closer. They were all chatting loudly and then, as if at the right time, stopped and observed about two and a half minutes of silence before taking off – a magpie memorial service.

“It’s not normal,” he said. “They are going to argue with an empty room.”

Magpies and chickadees are two of Murphy’s favorite birds. The magpies’ varied vocalizations impress him, as well as their cunning ability to hide things.

Likewise, Murphy is impressed with the titmouse’s ability to find food reserves that it leaves hidden in different places.

Murphy buys large bags of dog food which he softens in water and feeds the magpies in his yard, eliciting strange looks from strangers at the store asking him what kind of dog he has.


Great gray owls are the largest owls in North America and are common in the woods near grassy prairies where they can sound hunting.

Tom Murphy, courtesy photo


Murphy has traveled the world as a photographer, outdoorsman, and explorer. So the book also includes a variety of species, from East African Bateleur eagles to blue-eyed cormorants from the Falkland Islands. Additionally, there are close-ups of feet, beaks, feathers, and wings highlighting the variety of bird coloring and feathered adornments.

The first chapter of the book is devoted to feathers, as Murphy considers this characteristic the one that most distinguishes birds from other animals.

“What makes a bird a bird basically comes down to the feathers,” he wrote. “That’s what makes them most unique. “

The feathers he photographs up close sometimes come from birds he collected after finding them dead along the roads.

The method is less lethal than its well-known bird-loving predecessors, John James Audubon and Elliott Ladd Coues, who slaughtered birds to study and describe them.

“They didn’t have the advantage of photography,” Murphy noted.


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