Here’s somethng you may not be aware of – tens of thousands of people currently follow a magpie named Penguin on Instagram.
It’s not actually images taken by a magpie of course, but is the ongoing project of professional photographer Cameron Bloom. Since December 2013 he has been documenting a unique bond between his family – including his wife Sam and his three sons – and the orphaned magpie they found abandoned in the wild, nursed back to health and subsequently adopted.
The magpie, Penguin, quickly became an integral part of the Blooms’ home and family, playing affectionately with the boys, snuggling up in bed, stealing a bite of dinner, and generally just being incredibly photogenic.
The Instagram account documenting Penguin’s adventures has proved so popular that New York Times-bestselling author Bradley Trevor Greive recently announced that he would be partnering with Cameron to produce a book, set to be published next year.
We fell in love with the pictures the moment we saw them, and couldn’t resist speaking to Cameron about the success of his project, day-to-day-life with Penguin the magpie.
Amateur Photographer: So first of all, how did your family’s relationship with Penguin all start off?
Cameron Bloom: It was actually my wife and my middle son Noah who found her. She was probably a few weeks old, and she’d been blown out on a really windy day. They’d found her in the car park just outside Sam’s [Cameron’s wife’s] mum’s house which is just a few beaches away from where we live.
My wife Sam broke her back 2 years ago and was going through very hard times both emotionally and physically. We found Penguin when Sam came home from hospital, unable to walk and confined to a wheelchair, so this journey has been very special – particularly for Sam who along side Penguin began healing and getting stronger.
So they brought her home, and we put her in a little basket – she was a tiny little fluffball. We started giving her all the water and food over the next few months that she needed.
And the relationship developed from there?
CB: Yeah. Any baby I guess is pretty friendly, and all the kids took turns feeding her and stuff. Magpies are pretty smart birds, and they recognise faces, so she started to recognise us as being family.
When did you realise this was turning into a photography project?
CB: Actually I didn’t realise that I wasn’t taking photographs of her with my camera until a month or so into it. Maybe even more – Sam and I both just did lots of snaps on the iPhone. After we decided to keep her, I began photographing her properly and started an Instagram account a few months later.
What’s day-to-day life with Penguin like? Is she fairly independent?
CB: It’s not that predictable. In the early days she was here all the time, she learned to fly here and would sleep inside. As she grew older we made her sleep outside in a nearby tree, then every morning she’d come inside and visit – often jumping up onto one of our beds. Over time she began to disappear during the day until the boys came home from school. During the middle of the day she would start going out hunting and do what normal birds do.
Unfortunately the local magpies started giving her a hard time as a baby, and over time that’s gotten progressively worse. The local magpies really can’t stand her – the older ones anyway, they constantly fly down and bomb her, making her seek refuge – she often flies back into the house, leaving the wild ones at the front door.
Probably the first big trip away from home was just around Christmas time, when she disappeared initially a week, came home for a couple of days before she went for six weeks!
Did you think she wasn’t coming back?
CB: We definitely started to get used to the idea of her either unfortunately meeting a sad ending, or hoping that she would be out there somewhere and finding her own space where she wouldn’t feel as threatened and able to meet other magpies. However, probably after 4 weeks of her being gone, people started to contact us. They’d tell us how they saw a magpie who was really friendly, and their kids were patting her! So we figured it must be Penguin. She ended up coming home on Rueben’s 13th Birthday.
So you were reassured she hadn’t gone far
CB: Yeah. Now she disappears regularly – she took off yesterday, didn’t come home last night, but flew in this morning at eight or nine o’clock.
You’ve captured a lot of beautiful moments in your Instagram feed – I’m thinking in particular of a shot where Penguin is flying behind your son as he leaps through the air. Are these things you’re setting up or are they spontaneous moments you’re capturing?
CB: There’s a combination, of some shots where I’ve got a few ideas, and then probably just as many where she happens to be somewhere and the light’s beautiful and I think: “Wow that would be a great shot”.
So you’re always on the lookout?
CB: My cameras are never too far away, and I’ll often run and grab her or coax her to move a few inches if the light is better somewhere. There’s quite a lot you can do with her because she has a real personality, especially when she’s found food. The other day she grabbed some chicken and hid it in a basket in the lounge room. Later that day she came home and flew straight to the basket to retrieve it. Just this morning, we caught a huge huntsman spider and obviously she loves to eat them. We just put it in a glass jar and she stuck her head deep down into the jar to try and reach it but was unable to. They are the funny moments I love capturing.
You’ve had a huge response to this project, on Instagram and in the media. Is it strange to have something rather personal go so very public?
CB: Not really. It’s nice to get “Aww such a cute photo” or “Wow this is the best Instagram feed ever!” but it’s all from a distance and we still have our normal life. Essentially, it’s still just the five of us plus Penguin living here, you know what I mean? We’ve had a few film crews in and requests for books, film clips, documentaries etc. I’ll just keep shooting.
Was there a single moment when you realised it was taking off?
CB: Yes, just after the ABC did a story on it here in Australia. She really only had maybe two or three thousand followers on Instagram at that point, which is probably all right for a pet. As other bloggers and news outlets saw the ABC article, I was inundated with requests for interviews and permission to publish my photos of Penguin. I think people probably thought it was a good news story and quite odd – it was a bit of a fun story to run. I’m glad people have loved the story, especially from so many different countries which has meant she picked up a lot of followers [Penguin’s current count: 78,000].
Lastly, do you have a favourite image from the series?
CB: Yes, I really like the one of her sitting on Noah’s head on the roof, shot from behind.
It’s just really, I don’t know, what’s the word? It just makes you think about life. It’s soulful, that’s the best word to describe it. There are a lot of photos that are quite peaceful.
Cameron Bloom is a professional photographer who lives with his family in Sydney. His wife Sam has recently been chosen to represent Australia for the para canoe team which will be travelling to Milan in August for the world championships. You can find him at bloomphotography.com.