The National Audubon Society is teaming up with the owner of a New York art gallery to paint street murals of birds threatened by climate change.
In the Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum at 155th and Broadway in Upper Manhattan, New York, stands a giant bluestone Celtic cross decorated with figures of birds, rifles, and paintbrushes. This monument marks the burial site of John James Audubon, a 19th century ornithologist, naturalist, and painter who has been described as “the archetypal American” and “the nearest thing American art has had to a founding father.”
Just blocks from Trinity Church, on the steel roll-down security gate of a drab nail salon, a bright bald eagle with a powerful yellow gaze is painted against a multi-color sunburst background. Around the corner, the heads of two black vultures emerge from the darkness of black paint. A Spanish phrase written between them translates as “the bird that is often misunderstood.”
These street paintings share a meaningful connection with John James Audubon. They are part of the Audubon Mural Project, a collaboration between the National Audubon Society and Avi Gitler, who runs Gitler & gallery in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Harlem, New York, to paint murals of birds threatened by climate change.
Audubon is famed for his work ”The Birds of America,” a collection of 435 life-sized watercolors of North American birds. He also wrote the “Ornithological Biography,” which contains detailed observations of each bird’s behavior, habitat, and life history. He discovered 25 new species and is credited with the first recorded instance of bird banding in America.
Although not directly involved with its establishment, Audubon’s paintings and his deep passion for avian life inspired individuals like George Grinnell and Harriet Hemenway to act against the boundless killing of millions of birds for sport and fashion, eventually leading to the formation of the National Audubon Society in 1905. The society is now one of the largest and oldest nonprofit organizations for wildlife conservation in the world.
In September 2014, the society released its Birds and Climate Change Report, a comprehensive study that used decades of observations from thousands of birdwatchers along with detailed climate data models to estimate the current and future ranges of 588 bird species throughout the United States and Canada.
“Each bird species is finely tuned to a set of environmental conditions,” says Gary Langham, chief scientist at Audubon. Because of this, climatic changes (i.e., temperature and precipitation levels) can have direct and indirect consequences on birds’ reproductive success, migratory patterns, distribution, and availability of food sources.
The findings of the report were grim: Of the 588 species studied, 314 are projected to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2080. Of those 314, 126 are classified as “climate endangered” and are projected to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2050 if current climate trends continue unchanged.
Avi Gitler, a native of the Washington Heights area where Audubon spent the final years of his life, opened up the Gitler gallery in the same month that the Birds and Climate Change report was released. Although he wasn’t aware of the report at the time, the idea came to him to paint murals of birds on the roll down security gates in front of businesses as a way of calling attention to the history of the neighborhood, while at the same time drumming up buzz for his new gallery. Then he talked to Tom Sanford, a professional artist who lives only a few blocks from the Gitler gallery.
“My wife saw there was a new gallery in the neighborhood on one of our local blogs,” Sanford says. Shortly thereafter, the two artists connected in person.
ÛÏWe met and became instant friends,Û says Gitler. It wasn’t long until Gitler told Sanford about his project idea.
Call it fate or merely happenstance, but Sanford’s next-door neighbor and good friend is the Vice President of Content for the National Audubon Society, Mark Jannot, who had been working on a special edition of Audubon Magazine focused on the report and its implications. Sanford introduced them and the project quickly took on a grander scope and purpose.
ÛÏWe all sort of had a meeting of the minds,Û Jannot recalls. ÛÏ[Avi] was planning on doing like eight or 10 murals total, and I convinced him that we ought to try to do all 314 of the endangered or threatened species.Û
The plan went from a handful of bird murals to filling the streets of Washington Heights and Hamilton Heights, what they call ÛÏJJA territory,Û with the hopes of galvanizing a new audience and getting them interested in learning about the threats that birds all over the world are facing.
”I don’t think people think of graffiti and street art when they think of Audubon,” Jannot says, ÛÏtherefore it has a lot of potential over time to really draw fresh eyes to this cause.Û
Almost a year after its inception, the Audubon Mural Project is underway and picking up steam. So far, about 20 murals have been completed. After only five, the project was featured on the front page of The New York Times. Over the span of the project, the finished murals are being added to an online gallery on the Audubon website with information about each bird, the climate threat it faces, the artist that painted it, and its exact location in the neighborhood. The paintings also are expanding from roll down gates.
”We’re hoping to have by the end of the summer our first really large-scale murals done,” says Gitler. ÛÏWe’re talking about covering the entire facade of three adjacent buildings, which are probably about 60 feet by 80 feet.Û
He explains that one particular large mural will be located right across the street from John James Audubon’s grave.
”It’s absolutely epic,” he says.
If 314 murals aren’t enough, there’s even more in the works.
“The next thing we’re beginning to roll out in connection with the Audubon Mural Project and the report is what I’m calling the ’Audubon Cocktail Project,'” says Jannot. The idea is to have local bars come up with a cocktail, name it after one of the threatened bird species, and serve it in their bar, while, ideally, sponsoring the mural of that species at the same time.
”Over time, we’ll put all the cocktails up on our website and that will be a whole new way of engaging people around the research on birds and climate change,” he says.
Sanford speaks about the power of connecting John James Audubon with the challenges birds are facing today and potentially in the future.
“Matching up the artistic legacy of a guy like that with this very important ecological imperative - it’s a powerful message and it gets attention,” he says.
”The science is more important, actually doing something is more important, but it starts with awareness.”