Photographer Fuses Family History With Cowbird’s Behavior

[art courtesy of Michael Loderstedt]
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An abandoned infant and a bird with an unusual method of raising her young come together in artist Michael Loderstedt’s new collection of photos, “Night Flight.”

In 1893, Loderstedt’s great-grandmother Helen’s father left her birth mother over religious differences on how to the raise the child. Unable to care for Helen on her own, the birth mother left the infant on the doorstep of a family she didn’t know. The three items the baby had- a dress, shawl and letter from her birth mother explaining why she had to abandon the child-became heirlooms that were passed through the Loderstedt family.

“I had known the legend and seen some of the objects growing up. Upon the passing of my mother, I acquired them. I can tell you when I opened the box and handled my great-grandmother’s infant dress that she was left in as a one-month-old child and read the handwritten notes in really beautiful penmanship from her birth mother about how difficult this was for her to give up her child, it was an incredible experience,” Loderstedt said.

Art by Michael Loderstedt

As Loderstedt, a resident of North Collinwood,  spent more time with the heirlooms, he saw a connection to another one of his passions that has been a frequent subject of his work.

“Given my own interest in wildlife and birds, particularly cowbirds, which only lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, I thought it would be interesting pairing for an exhibition, especially with the question of creating identity after being abandoned,” Loderstedt said.

Loderstedt noted that while the female cowbird deposits her eggs in other birds’ nests she doesn’t totally abandon her young.

“The mother hen follows a bit from beyond the wings of the rearing. She connects with them through auditory clues, called ‘passwords.’ She sends a clicking noise that apparently metabolically stimulates brain development in the young cowbird that begins the process of recognizing their own identity. Most birds will kind of imprint on whomever feeds them. Cowbirds have to undo their imprinting from their host species otherwise the species wouldn’t continue,” he said.

Art courtesy of Michael Loderstedt
Art courtesy of Michael Loderstedt


The question of whether Helen’s birth mother behaved like a mother cowbird is one the family often pondered.

“In our family, we all have some possible conjectures about how that may have worked out. The infant mother may kept an eye from afar on how this infant girl was doing.”

Loderstedt admitted he had some reservations about tying his own family history to that of a bird that is reviled in the animal kingdom for its parasitic behavior, but doing it allowed him to tell a larger story.

“When you use an extended metaphor as you parallel two stories, the consequences are that some people might equate one thing with the next, but that’s not really my intention. I just want to draw similar thematic interests between the two. This is always a gamble, but without a certain level of risk artists never really grow,” he said.

For Loderstedt, assembling “Night Flight” has gone beyond just preparing a collection of his photos for exhibition.

“Now I think that I’ve finished examining these objects and using them in a kind of overarching art project has kind of helped me reconcile in some ways my own mother’s death and the fact that I now have become one of the senior members of my family. It’s been a really interesting journey.”


courtesy of Michael Loderstedt


Hear Michael read the letter that was left with his great-grandmother




Night Flight” is part of the exhibit, “Anthropocene,” which opens at the Cleveland Print Room this Friday. The exhibit examines how human activities have made a significant impact on the Earth’s eco-system.

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