What inspired you to tell this story about a very unlikely hero, the magpie

I had recently moved back to my home-state of Idaho after spending nearly 20 years in New York and California. One of the first things I noticed were these beautifully iridescent black and white birds. Idaho has one of the largest concentrations of magpies in the world and I couldn't imagine why, as a kid, I hadn't been fascinated by them. Then I remembered I'd grown up hating magpies, hating them for no deeper reason than my parent's and grandparent's hatred of them

Everyone had seemed to despise magpies. "Dirty birds, they'd peck the eyes out of a newborn calf just for fun." I didn't know if that were true; I'd never considered finding out. I'd inherited a regional prejudice against an animal I knew nothing about, a prejudice like most prejudices: planted young and nurtured with a kind of willful ignorance. I decided to learn more about magpies and my prejudice against them and that sounded like the beginnings of a good story

While you were telling a light-hearted story about a much-maligned bird, did you ever feel Mad About Magpies held a larger or deeper meaning

For me, the deeper meaning is always the point. A light-hearted piece that goes no further is just a diversion. But a light-hearted piece that builds toward something more thought provoking, that's good storytelling. I like to bait and switch, to take what appears to be a goofy subject and incrementally push it into more serious territory. For instance, with Mad About Magpies , I tried to use this somewhat cartoonish bird as a way to look at our contentious relationship to the whole of nature, to look at the way unexamined prejudices are passed down, and how that leads to misplaced and often murderous ends

You were a photographer before you became a radio producer. Why did you add radio to your repertoire

Frankly, I began to write and later produce radio out of a frustration with the limitations of photography. For years I traveled as part of freelance photographic crews on commercial assignments all over the world. I assisted on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in Tahiti, climbed glaciers in Alaska, repelled into Philippine caves, and yet often learned very little about those places and the people we photographed

By nature the camera can only record surfaces, light bouncing off objects. That can lead to powerful pictures, but it doesn't guarantee a depth of understanding. Increasingly I wanted to get beneath the visual surfaces and the camera just couldn't take me there. Writing and radio gave me the tools to crack through that visual veneer and begin looking at the underlying historical, cultural, and ecological forces that shape what we see with our eyes

You have a story in the May issue of the photo journal Orion about the limitations of photography. How do you think photographers will respond

Several photographers have already reacted positively to the essay. They too have experienced the limitations inherent in trying to understand and illustrate the world by focusing exclusively on only one of the five senses. I try to make it clear in the piece that I'm not blaming photography or photographers for these limitations, but focusing instead on our often unexamined cultural faith in the camera to clearly depict the world. Visual media is overwhelmingly popular

Today, we get most of our information visually -- whether we create it ourselves with point-and-shoots, camcorders, or camera phones; or consume it through television, movies, video iPods, or picture-heavy magazines and newspapers. The visual has eclipsed all other forms of sensing. My essay simply points out some of the blind spots created by that myopic view of the world. I hadn't thought of it before, but a piece that would really be pertinent to a discussion of sight and the other senses (particularly sound) is a story I did for Living on Earth in 2004 called "The Sounds of Nature." In it I explain my personal switch from photography to sound and how that switch completely changed my view of the world

How did you learn to make radio stories

I began writing for magazines and eventually a public radio station in central California asked me if I'd like to turn some of my print stories into radio pieces (something I'd never considered). The station gave me tips, I did a ton of research and experimentation, got some assignments with national shows, and before long had filled my camera bags not with lenses and cameras but microphones and recorders. In a way it was an easy transition: I'd simply substituted the sense of sound for the sense of sight. Yet that sensory switch opened up a much larger (if less lucrative) universe

Have you produced a project that combined your interests in radio and photography

I often shoot photos while I'm working on a radio or writing project, but photography now takes a back seat to what I consider to be the more interesting work of writing and radio. It took years, but I've learned that a magpie is much more interesting than a picture of a magpie.