In New York, the Audubon Mural Project features endangered birds
My wife, Carol, and I experienced all the joys, discoveries, and challenges of birdwatching on our walking tour of the Audubon Mural Project in bustling high-rise neighborhoods Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights low rise, corner produce markets, street vendors and people. enjoying a sunny Sunday morning. In the streets, car horns and roaring engines mingled with the sounds of upbeat music.
This project, a joint initiative of the National Audubon Society and Gitler & _____ Gallery, pronounced “Gitler and”, funds artists to create murals of North American birds facing catastrophic habitat loss accelerated by the climate change.
“Birds are like the proverbial canaries in a coal mine,” said Jennifer Bogo, vice president of content for the National Audubon Society. “While many animals and also humans will suffer from the impacts of climate change, birds will be among the first to show it.”
Pelican Paradise on Smith Island, Md.
As of this writing, 102 murals representing 140 species are on display: some are massive and painted on the sides of buildings, some are spray-painted on security screens, and others appear in unexpected corners. And all appear in the neighborhood where John James Audubon spent the last 10 years of his life.
Our group of 12, most in town for the day, met at 10am at Chipped Cup Coffee & Victuals in Hamilton Heights and were greeted by our guide, Leigh Hallingby, who offers tours of the mural project .
Leigh said all of the murals we would see that day depicted birds threatened by range loss, depletion of food sources or habitat loss due to climate change. The walk would take us up Broadway from West 148th Street, crossing Amsterdam Avenue, then back to Broadway. We ended at West 164th Street east of Broadway. In all, the visit lasted a little over two hours.
One of our first stops was at a pediatric clinic at 3612 Broadway, where Australian artist Jacinta Stewart’s mural celebrates baby birds. On the front wall, a pair of Bullock’s Orioles feed three chicks and a Red-breasted Woodpecker feeds two. In one corner, an American three-toed woodpecker sits in a tree.
As the group admired this mural, Leigh looked over her shoulder and cried out: another mural sighting of birds across Broadway. “’I’ve literally never seen him before,’ she says happily. “It’s always exciting to see a new mural go up.” But more on that later.
At the corner of West 149th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, a huge grosbeak emerges above the treetops on the wall of a former cinema, now a church. This Evening Grosbeak is perched on a cherry tree whose branches stretch along the wall facing 149th Street. A black-headed cardinal appears on the back wall of the building.
Artist Louise Jones, known as Ouizi, used a bucket truck to paint this mural. She chose birds that represented different sections of the country, emphasizing that habitat loss is a national issue. (The evening grosbeak is usually found in the east, while the black-capped grosbeak is usually found in the west.)
The Ouizi mural was a favorite of tour member Abigail Rosen. “I love the cherry trees and I liked that they were so huge, and the cherry tree extends to the corner [of Amsterdam Avenue],” she says.
The styles of muralists vary as much as the birds themselves. Heading back towards Broadway, we came across a giant mural on the side of an apartment building depicting male and female Hooded Warblers perched on a bird’s-foot violet. The mural – by artist Gera Lozano, also known as Geraluz – is designed as a page from a volume of paintings by Audubon, complete with title and identification numbers.
Scotland’s Bass Rock belongs to the birds
We returned to Broadway and West 149th, where Leigh had made her discovery earlier. Two new murals of barn swallows by Harlem artist Marthalicia Matarrita had replaced those badly damaged by graffiti.
Leigh told the group that for some the murals represent an unwanted change in the neighborhood, while others applaud the attention they generate. “The urban dynamics of doing the project in a city of high income inequality is complicated,” she said.
Nearby, another mural by Matarrita, this time painted on a security screen, celebrates an unpopular bird: the black vulture. The bird plays an essential role in the environment, as the artist notes in the mural “Bird that is often misunderstood”.
As I walked, I discovered that I could identify the artists by their style. One is Snoeman, whose whimsical and vibrant murals pop up throughout the neighborhood. A few doors down from the Vulture, we came upon a Screech Owl, a gray owl with large yellow eyes spray-painted on a black security screen. More yellow eyes surround the bird, and below are the words “Have a good night.”
My favorite mural was on the wall of an apartment building on the east side of Broadway between West 151st and West 152nd streets, a huge pinyon blue jay perched on a pinyon pine visible from the tree-lined middle strip dividing Broadway . The artist, Mary Lacy of Vermont, painted the bird with mosaic designs.
At 575 W. 155th St., my jaw dropped when I saw the gigantic mural of a swallow-tailed kite by artist Lunar New Year spanning the side of a five-story building . Its shiny white head stands out clearly against the dark background of the building, and it clutches a garter snake in its claws. Embedded within its body and wings are 12 other endangered birds, creating a dazzling montage.
Across the street at Trinity Church Cemetery we paid our respects at Audubon’s grave. This wooded haven of peace offered a break from the noise of the city. Its monument, a Celtic cross, is appropriately carved with images of birds.
Walking north towards Washington Heights, we came across another Snoeman mural, of a bird I was surprised to find facing habitat loss: the seemingly ubiquitous Canada goose. The cool goose – he’s wearing bright yellow sneakers, a Yankees cap and a necklace that read “Too Fly” – stands out against a red and white background on a security fence outside an old shoe store.
On West 163rd Street west of Broadway, Guatemalan artist Juan Carlos Pinto and Brooklyn artist John Sear have created a mosaic of trumpeter swans using recycled glass, mirrors, tiles, porcelain and d other materials. The swirl of whites, yellows, reds and blues evokes movement and flight. Leigh pointed out details such as slivers of willow and a snaking row of dominoes embedded in the sky. “There’s so much going on here,” Carol said.
After returning from near extinction, trumpeter swans face drastic habitat loss due to climate change. We saw a sign of hope painted on a security screen at 3898 Broadway, where a mural by James Alicea, aka BlusterOne, depicted a blue-headed vireo and two northern parulas. “Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright,” it reads, invoking Bob Marley’s lyrics from the song “Three Little Birds.”
Over the past eight years, the mural project has exceeded all expectations, now expanding to Vashon Island, Washington, and Rockford, Illinois. The project’s co-producer, Avi Gitler, has also come a long way.
“I don’t look at birds the same way I used to,” Gitler said.
Neither do I. I thought of the diversity and beauty of the birds we saw and the talent of the artists. Our planet would be sterile without them.
Lee is a Virginia Beach-based writer. His website is jamesflee.com. Find him on Twitter: @writer1218.
Tours of the Audubon Mural Project are typically offered one Sunday per month from 10:00 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. The tour passes through an urban neighborhood on flat ground. Expect to see around 30 murals. Limited to 20 people. Costs $30 or $20 for NYC Audubon members. Check nycaudubon.org for more details and to register.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.