Scientists Work with NYC Artists to Create Murals Depicting Threatened Species

By Helen LinLast Updated May 30, 2020 9:07:22 AM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

When you think about endangered species, birds probably aren’t the first animals that come to mind. Majestic tigers, powerful gorillas and adorable giant pandas tend to grab a lot more headlines for their diminishing numbers than birds with strange names like the greater sage-grouse or the Florida scrub jay. The National Audubon Society has worked since 1886 to focus more attention on the dangers to various North American birds, but very few Americans could actually tell you the name of a single endangered bird.

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Decades later, the Audubon Society has taken a new, bold step in New York City to emphasize the threat to North American birds in a way the public can’t miss and is sure to remember. Working with NYC artists, the organization commissioned the creation of murals to draw attention to endangered birds using a larger-than-life format. Called the Audubon Mural Project, the artwork is already spreading throughout Harlem neighborhoods. Let’s take a look!

Making a Big Statement

Scientists working with the Audubon Society estimated in 2014 that nearly half of the bird species in North America were threatened with extinction due to climate change and man-made hazards, such as pollution, waste and wildfires. An updated report created in 2019 increased that number to about two-thirds of North American bird species at risk of extinction, but they also believe greater conservation efforts can reduce that degree of risk.

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Photo Courtesy: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

To call attention to the growing problem, the Audubon Mural Project was established to work with talented local artists to create captivating images of threatened species. The hope is that the giant murals will inspire locals and visitors to stop, take a look and think about birds before it’s too late. Perhaps even more importantly, the murals have led to media coverage that draws attention to the threat on a much larger scale.

Establishing an Audubon Connection on a Giant Scale

The former home of John James Audubon, the famous ornithologist and namesake of the Audubon Society, was a two-story frame house on an estate named Minnie’s Land that was once located near the Hudson River on what is now 156th Street in New York City. At the time, the neighborhood was a semi-rural outer suburb. The house was demolished in 1931, but the community hasn’t forgotten the famous artist and birder who lived there. Audubon is buried in the Trinity Cemetery on 155th and Broadway in West Harlem, and the dramatic mural from the initiative Swallow-Tailed Kite (and Others) is located across from his grave.

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Photo Courtesy: John James Audubon/Wikipedia

The Audubon Mural Project first took flight when Avi Gitler asked a local street artist to paint one of the roll-down shutters in his neighborhood, and the artist chose a flamingo. The neighborhood already had a connection to John James Audubon, which inspired Gitler to approach the Audubon Society to create a series of bird murals. The initial idea was to paint about three dozen species from the Audubon folio, but the project rapidly evolved to focus on all the endangered birds to promote awareness.

To start creating the murals, the Audubon Society collaborated with Gitler &_____ Gallery (strangely not a typo), Avi Gitler’s organization that features rising artists from around the world. The goal is to create a series of public art murals throughout New York City and in Chicago, Illinois, that depict climate-threatened birds in vivid, stunning colors on walls, doors, sides of buildings, underpasses and more. In New York City, the selected location is Harlem, the former neighborhood of John James Audubon.

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Basking in the Limelight

In early 2020, the Audubon Mural Project is still a work in progress, but more than 115 birds have been featured in murals in New York City so far. (You can track the overall progress on the project’s website.) Birds in the New York City paintings range from the tiny Allen’s hummingbird to the bald eagle and include some well-known species as well as those that only devoted birdwatchers would recognize. Many of the murals depict multiple species in a single painting — realistic or not — while others focus on a single bird and its vibrant colors.

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Photo Courtesy: Raed Mansour/Flickr

The project has also begun to move beyond the limits of New York City into neighborhoods in Chicago, Illinois, including Roger’s Park, the northernmost Chicago neighborhood. In Chicago, the organization collaborates with the street art project known as the Mile of Murals to create the bird-focused murals more quickly.

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Birds in the Chicago edition include threatened species from six habitat categories. Some of the most notable murals feature the bald eagle, the hooded merganser, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, the black-crowned night heron, the tree swallow, the Baltimore oriole, the black cormorant, the peregrine falcon, the mallard, the wood duck, the hairy woodpecker, the red-breasted nuthatch and the white-breasted nuthatch.

Engaging in Some Big City Birdwatching

If you’re interested in taking in all the murals in Harlem, you’re in luck. There are three basic ways you can view the murals and learn more about the species that have been painted. When the New York City Audubon Society is open, it offers Sunday morning tours through the neighborhood and takes visitors to more than 30 installations as well as the final resting place of John James Audubon. You have to register online in advance for these tours.

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Photo Courtesy: Raed Mansour/Flickr

If the Audubon Society is closed or you prefer to "wing it" on a self-guided tour, be sure to take advantage of the printable map created by the society to mark the 70-plus locations featuring the murals. The third option for enjoying the murals is to simply stroll and explore the neighborhood. Many people enjoy coming across them as they move through that part of the city. The I, B, D, A and C trains will take you to the right neighborhood.

If you’re visiting Chicago, you can find the bird murals throughout Roger’s Park in the Mile of Murals installment alongside numerous other creative and colorful works. That organization also offers a printable guide to help you navigate the artwork in the area.

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