Last weekend, the National Audubon Society teamed up with the group Runstreet to host a running tour of the Audubon Murals in Upper Manhattan. Let’s see . . . an event that combines running, birds and street art? Sign me up!
And so, only slightly challenged by weekend train schedules, I headed across the East River and up, up, uptown to the Harlem Public at Broadway and W. 149th. A small crowd of participants had already gathered – easily recognized, first, by the fact that they were milling around outside a closed bar at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and second, by their mix of running and bird-themed apparel. As we arrived, a preternaturally cheerful organizer checked us off from her list of registrants. New arrivals continued to trickle in, muttering about “trains” (the all-purpose NYC excuse for tardiness), until someone decided that it was time to get started.
First, though, some background on the Audubon Mural Project, echoing the introduction provided to us by Avi Gitler, a local gallery owner and project coordinator. The ambitious goal is to depict all of the more than 300 North American birds threatened with extinction because of climate change. Eight years into the effort, the count has reached 138, spread across 100 murals, mostly in Upper Manhattan – where John James Audubon was once a major landowner, and where he is buried in the cemetery of Trinity Church.
One of our first stops highlighted these handsome Hooded Warblers. Drawing on my birding expertise, I was able to identify them almost immediately. How nice of them to stand still!
More warblers followed, including this fearsome gang (with a vireo crony).
Having had no luck with Red-faced Warblers in Mexico or Arizona, imagine my excitement when I spotted this beauty on W. 162 St.
Street-art birding has its own challenges, of course. Many of the murals are on store shutters – get there too late, and the shutters, with their art, will be rolled up. That’s why we missed seeing a barbershop Rufous Hummingbird on this trip. But more poignantly, street art is by its nature vulnerable. It can be tagged up, damaged by the elements, painted over, destroyed when buildings are demolished or renovated. Its continued existence depends, in no small part, on the actions of human beings.
Kind of like the continued existence of birds in the Anthropocene.
That is, I think, part of the impact of a project like this. Conceived to draw attention to the threats posed by human-induced climate change, it also models the beginning of a collective response. If we’re moved by the art, and motivated to protect it, might we also be motivated to protect the species it depicts? And what is it about the art that inspires love and connection?
Being stunningly beautiful, like this mosaic of Trumpeter Swans, certainly helps.
But of course, most birds aren’t big or flashy, and most of the Audubon murals aren’t this elaborate. What about all the “little brown jobs” that skulk in the underbrush – or, in the case of these Ovenbirds, are spray-painted on liquor store shutters?
I’ve found that once you actually see an Ovenbird, you can only love them – I can’t imagine anyone so soul-dead as not to be touched by these small, creeping birds. And if art is part of your everyday life, you’ll probably love it, as well. What most impressed me about the Audubon Mural Project, in fact, was its focus on its host communities: their history, their struggles, their cultures. Many pieces involved residents in their creation and installation; some explicitly linked the experience of human migrants with that of migratory birds; others served as neighborhood welcome signs; and still others, like the Audubon’s Oriole depicted perched on a folding shopping cart at Amsterdam and W. 168th, fondly celebrated everyday life.
I’ll end with one from that last category, which happens to be a personal favorite.