A picture of a bluebird, that's all he was after. Not money and fame, not admirers and accolades, not the chance to quit his day job and take pictures full-time. Photographing birds was his passion; it always would be. One good shot out of 100 was worth it.
And so it was that on a cold February day in 1979, Michael L. Smith set up a tripod in his Largo backyard, pointed his camera toward a fence post and waited.
He wasn't trying to change his life. He wasn't trying to buy the house of his dreams. He wasn't trying to become Michael Smith, the guy who took that bluebird photo.
He was just trying to take a photo of a bluebird.
And here came his chance. A male Eastern bluebird flew into the backyard and landed on the fence post. It hunkered down. It fluffed up its feathers. It fixed its black beady eyes on the long lens of the camera.
Sixty feet away, Smith couldn't see any of this. He sat in his house, holding a remote camera trigger, watching the bluebird through a glass door.
All he could see was that the bird was facing the camera.
The bird flew away. The man went on with his life. Neither, it seems safe to say, had any idea what they'd done.
More than 20 years later, Smith still can't entirely believe it.
If you owed your fortune to a bird, you might not either.
As it turned out, that was no ordinary bluebird. It was a grumpy bluebird. A ticked-off, glowering, down-in-the-beak bluebird. Or so it appeared to humans, and that's what mattered, because at last count humans have bought more than 102,000 signed prints of "The Mad Bluebird" -- a phenomenal number by most photographers' standards. And it doesn't even include the tens of thousands of "Mad Bluebird" stained-glass sun catchers that have sold.
In other words, the man who has spent his life taking intimate portraits of birds -- a photographer who has slept in duck blinds, spent 13 years of summer weekends documenting the habits of a single osprey and crawled through his yard with a blanket over his head to avoid disturbing his subjects -- achieved his greatest success with a photo he didn't especially like the first time he saw it and still doesn't list among his very best.
And that doesn't bother him a bit. Thanks to "The Mad Bluebird," Smith has quit his job as an electrician, become a full-time free-lance wildlife photographer and traded his townhouse for a 4,000-square-foot dream home on 13 acres in New Windsor. The financial details of his windfall Smith keeps private. But consider: Smith charges $26 for a matted 5-by-7 print of "The Mad Bluebird"; the Signals catalog charges $58 for a framed 5-by-7; the Orvis catalog charges $95 for a framed 8-by-10.
It's not hard to get the picture.
"It has put me in a whole new world financially," says Smith, "I was an electrician for 32 years, and I made good money, but nothing like this."
When he says it, he doesn't sound like he's gloating. He sounds proud, grateful and still plenty stunned. When Smith moved into his new home in the fall of 1998, a copy of "The Mad Bluebird" was the first possession over the threshold; today, a giant print above the kitchen table reminds him every day who he has to thank. He feels indebted to the bird not just for his home, but also for his girlfriend, Marci Krishnamoorthy, whom he met while delivering prints to the nature store where she worked.
Despite the volume of prints sold, Smith still signs each one by hand -- he bought a signature machine but it felt too impersonal. He still gets teary talking about the strangers his photo has touched, such as the old woman from Pennsylvania with cancer who told him "The Mad Bluebird" boosts her morale. And he still seems to relish telling his far-from-overnight success story.
It begins in 1983, when "The Mad Bluebird" was used as the cover of a brochure for a National Geographic bird book. People loved the photo so much that they ripped off the covers and framed them; the same thing happened when the photograph appeared on the Duncraft birding supply catalog a year later.
"A lot of our customers do take our covers off, but the response to this cover was way off the charts," says Sharon Dunn, Duncraft co-owner. "Then the idea occurred: We should be offering this as a print."
After the Signals catalog started carrying the print in 1996, sales really started to fly; Smith began filling orders for thousands, not hundreds, of prints at a time. Today "The Mad Bluebird" is available in five catalogs, about 80 stores and direct from Smith.
(It is not, for the record, sold by the National Geographic Society, although National Geographic gets so many calls about it that purchasing information for "The Mad Bluebird" is now included on a voice-mail recording for frequently asked questions.)
"It came in the mail and I opened it, and right away I thought it was a unique and special picture," says Judy Ryan, senior buyer for Signals and Wireless. "It shows the personality of the bird. I've been getting a lot of other pictures of animals from people who think they have the next 'Mad Bluebird,' but I haven't gotten anything as good as that."
Smith himself has taken few photos this past year, in part because he's been too busy signing, matting, framing and shipping prints to customers. But his trigger finger is getting itchy, and his eyes have been roaming the woods behind his house, where three feeders and eight bluebird houses lure all manner of subjects. He's been mad about birds ever since he was a teen-ager; in his photographs he strives to capture their personalities and habits.
Here's a shot he'd like to get this year: a picture of a bluebird taking a bath in a pond. It's easier said than done, of course. Smith will have to lure the bird to the pond, set up his camera in the perfect position and then, as always, wait for the bird to do what it's supposed to.
If not something better.
A place to land, that's all he was after.
Or so we will assume. It wouldn't be right, after all, to end this story without the bird's side. Particularly regarding the matter of his mood.
Speaking for the bird we have Lillian Stokes, a Massachusetts-based bluebird expert and co-author of "The Bluebird Book," in which "The Mad Bluebird" appears on Page 13.
Stokes: "If you look at a bluebird's face head on, they just happen to have the configuration that we interpret as looking angry. The brow is low, and the little point of red looks like their mouth is turned down. I don't know the exact mental state of that bird, but in general it may not have been mad. A lot of times birds hunker down like that and fluff up their feathers when they're cold."
She speculates that "he's probably thinking about 'where am I going to get my next meal to keep me warm?' and 'I hope the snow melts soon so I can find some insects on the ground.' "
There you have it. But what difference does it make? That once-anonymous bluebird -- who bird sources say surely died years ago -- has become "The Mad Bluebird." He has attained a level of fame that few humans can hope for. That much was clear last spring,when the Mad Bluebird appeared in Time magazine, linked with no less prominent a figure than Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
While NATO was bombing Serbia, Time ran a cover photo of Albright, talking on the phone at a German air base. One reader was so struck by this photo -- Albright's downturned mouth, furrowed brow, deep-set eyes, fluffy reddish hair -- that she wrote a letter to the editor.
The May 17 cover of Madeleine Albright looking tough reminds me of the photograph of the "Mad Bluebird" used on a National Geographic years ago, wrote Mary Stakes of Athens, Ga. Separated at birth?
Disrespectful to Albright? Not at all, says Stakes, who works at the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government. "I personally admire Madeleine Albright very much," she says. "And I think that bird is rather attractive and funny."
But she only keeps one of their photos in her office -- and it's signed by Michael L. Smith.