The Audubon Mural Project is betting that birds can win hearts and minds in the battle over climate change.
From the Audubon Mural Project: “The Swallow-tailed Kite mural contains 12 other climate-threatened species.” Image by Mike Fernandez/Audubon
The National Audubon Society estimates that there are more than 800 bird species in North America, though it has only collected and analyzed data on just over 590 of these. Of the catalogued avian species, 314 are classified as threatened, and many of the threats they face are attributable to human-caused climate change. These are the facts behind the National Audubon Society’s collaboration with gallerist Avi Gitler for the Audubon Mural Project, which encourages street artists and muralists to create works that feature the climate-threatened birds.
As Audubon Society vice president of content Mark Jannot tells GOOD, the mural project grew out of “Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report,” published in 2014, which detailed how climate change is impacting North American birds. It has grown from a few dozen murals to hundreds, painted on security gates and building exteriors around Manhattan, with a vast array of street artists and muralists enlisted from New York City and beyond.
Jannot and Gitler came to work together on the Audubon Mural Project when the two were introduced by Jannot’s neighbor, artist Tom Sanford. Gitler told Sanford he had decided to ask artists to paint about 10 roll-down security gates in his Harlem neighborhood. He already knew that John James Audubon, the famed ornithologist and naturalist, had spent the last years of his life in this very same uptown area of Manhattan, so Sanford suggested that Gitler talk to Jannot about a possible collaboration with the National Audubon Society.
American Redstart by James Alicea. Photo by Mike Fernandez/Audubon
Sanford also suggested that Gitler ask street artists and muralists to paint only climate-threatened birds. But it was Jannot who upped the ante by hitting on the idea of painting all 314 threatened species. Jannot admits that the monumental task was undertaken with “gleeful abandon,” but says they were determined to find a way to run it as a cost-neutral enterprise.
Ultimately, there won’t be 314 murals, Jannot explains. Instead, the team is committed to 254 murals that will include all 314 species of threatened birds. So far, there are approximately 24 murals representing about 36 birds. As for the variety of street artists and muralists, Jannot said they range among various locales and styles.
“Because we’ve been able to find recesses in sides of buildings where we can mount paintings that have been painted in studios, we’ve been able to work with studio artists who aren’t as comfortable painting in real time on the street, as well as street artists and major wall-mural painters,” Jannot explains. “It’s a pretty big range. We’ve had a lot of interest from artists all over the country when they heard about it. We tell them we can’t fly them in but to let us know when they’re coming through town.”
To accommodate artists’ random visits to New York City, the Audubon Mural Project tries to always have some available, paintable security gates lined up so the murals can be done at almost a moment’s notice. Serendipitously, not long after they launched the project, they were contacted by Italian street artist and muralist Hitnes, who was already slated to fly to the United States to travel in the footsteps of John James Audubon’s early 19th-century birding travels. His plan was to encounter the birds Audubon documented while painting murals along the way.
“We facilitated [Hitnes’ visits] to various Audubon centers and then he culminated his trip by doing a big wall mural, The Image Hunter, for us at 155th and Broadway right near where Audubon is buried,” Jannot says. “So there have been things like that that have just kind of cropped up, and I think it’s awesome that we aren’t overly confined to one type of artist.”
“We also don’t take a prescriptive approach to demanding that the representation of the birds is absolutely faithful to how they look,” he adds. “As long as it’s identifiable then we’re happy to really encourage the artist to pursue their interpretation and vision.”
One of the first murals created for the project was by a young Orlando street artist named Boy Kong. He painted a flamingo on the gate right next to Gitler’s gallery. But, as Jannot explains, the flamingo is not threatened, so Boy Kong returned and painted over the flamingo with a tundra swan mural.
“To give you a sense of how this project is sort of ever-evolving just as the environment and ecosystem evolves, the business that that gate was on closed and has now been rented by folks who are turning it into a whiskey bar,” Jannot says. “They very happily agreed to keep the mural on the gate, but they changed the facade of the building so they needed a bigger gate and inserted five gate strips at the bottom ... so Boy Kong came back again and painted a completely different-looking tundra swan.”
Another early mural was by N. Soala. Originally he painted an image of a man transforming into a bird, based on the Roald Dahl story The Magic Finger. But the bird didn’t look like any particular species, so N. Soala came back and adapted the mural so that the human is metamorphosing into a wild turkey.
Plate from John James Audubon's Birds of America featuring the ivory-billed woodpecker
Jannot says that by 2080, these threatened birds’ climate suitability range will contract by at least 50 percent, or shift by at least 50 percent to a different area. If this shift takes place, there is no way of knowing whether the shifted habitat will be suitable. And if it proves unsuitable, the birds won’t be able to survive there, even if its geographic size is equivalent to their original habitat. The Audubon Society’s models predict that for bird species already categorized as endangered, the same thing will happen, but by 2050. Jannot emphasizes that the threatened and endangered birds likely won’t go extinct, but the situation still calls for positive action.
“When you hear that almost half of North American birds are threatened or endangered by climate change, it’s pretty dramatic,” Jannot says. “Birds are very beloved animals and they’re everywhere, and there are no politics around them. The people who love birds are of every political and social stripe, so [the mural project] is a way to kind of cut through the bullshit politics around this issue and get people seeing and caring about it through a different angle.”
The Audubon Society has shown this information to focus groups, which have included people deeply skeptical of climate change, and even those who flat out don’t believe the phenomenon is real. But when presented data on the threatened and endangered birds, Jannot says, these very same people grow concerned and say they’re willing to do something about it.
Black-Throated Blue Warbler by minusbaby. Picture by Mike Fernandez/Audubon
“We just want to bring that reality and information to as wide an audience as possible,” Jannot says. “This sort of project, which is deeply legitimate and genuine from an Audubon brand standpoint, yet entirely surprising because they don’t associate us with graffiti and street art, is great because it brings our message to different audiences.”
In part because of the Audubon Mural Project, Jannot says he’s now more optimistic about breaking through psychological resistance to the idea of climate change amongst all sorts of people. He believes the key is to find fresh ways to engage people in solving the problem, even if that means undertaking monumental tasks, like creating 254 murals across Manhattan.
“There’s really nothing negative about this, but it’s a shit ton of work, because you have to do that many murals and there are a hell of a lot of logistics,” Jannot says. “But it’s kind of been an awesomely engaging and constantly surprising process figuring out what the problems are and how to solve them.”
Fish Crow by Hitnes. Photo via the Audubon Mural Project, courtesy of Hitnes
Allen’s Hummingbird by Sockychop. Picture by Mike Fernandez/Audubon
Picture by Mike Fernandez/Audubon