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Uptown, Audubon’s Birds Hit the Streets

Patron saint of the environmentalist movement and celebrated ornithologist, John James Audubon was the first to sound the alarm. He recognized in the early 1800s that many avian species and their habitats were threated. Almost 200 years later, many of the feathered subjects are endangered or extinct. To see 42 of his original breathtaking watercolors from The Birds of America, come check out Audubon’s Aviary: The Final Flight, opening today at the New-York Historical Society!

Inspired by John James Audubon’s vibrant avian watercolors, the National Audubon Society teamed up with New York street artists and the Gitler & _____ Gallery to bring you the Audubon Mural Project. The ambitious plan will transform blank brick walls and rolling steel security grates around Washington and Hamilton Heights into works of art, immortalizing 314 of Audubon’s treasured birds who’re currently climate-threatened. We recently sat down with Agatha Szczepaniak, Senior Media Relations Manager at the National Audubon Society to talk about the new flock uptown.

Our national symbol makes an appearance. Camilla Cerea/National Audubon Society
Our national symbol makes a colorful appearance. Camilla Cerea/National Audubon Society

Please explain the Audubon Mural Project.

The Audubon Mural Project is a public art initiative of the National Audubon Society, in partnership with the Harlem‐based Gitler &_____ Gallery. The project is inspired by the legacy of the great American bird artist and pioneering ornithologist John James  Audubon (a former neighborhood resident), and is energized by recently published findings from the National Audubon Society that nearly half of all North American bird species face dire threats to their survival by 2080 due to global warming. The project is commissioning artists to paint murals of each of the threatened birds—a total of 314 species—throughout Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights. It will beautify the neighborhood; create a powerful draw for tourists and residents from throughout the city; and be a fresh, surprising way to bring attention to a critically important environmental and conservation crisis.

Why was spray paint the chosen medium? 

Spray paint was the medium our select artists were comfortable using. The larger murals are painted with spray paint but the smaller installed works are painted with mixed media.

Mike Fernandez/ National Audubon Society
The Rusty Blackbird’s habitat is now threatened by climate change. Mike Fernandez/ National Audubon Society

How do you think John James Audubon would react to this project?

We think he would be happy as the whole goal of the project is to make more people, the general public, aware about the threats to birds… same purpose as J.J. Audubon’s paintings except that it’s just a modern way of doing so.

The murals are currently underway across Hamilton and Washington Heights—how has the community responded to the project so far?

Mostly curiously and positively. Most seem to appreciate this unique approach and creative way of reminding passerbys about nature, the effects of climate change on birds and what the National Audubon Society does. (But of course, there always some “jaded” New Yorkers who don’t even notice). We hope it inspires more people to help protect birds and engage in conservation action.

And be sure to watch this amazing time-lapse video of the Audubon street artists at work!

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