19 May 2020

Inner-city wildlife: feast your eyes on the stunning Audubon mural project

Since 2014, larger-than-life paintings of more than one hundred bird species threatened by climate change have been wowing residents and spreading awareness in Harlem, New York. The project is set to cross the Atlantic to Europe, bringing with it the power to reconnect city-dwellers with nature.

A quintet of warblers by George Boorujy, Photo © Mike Fernandez
A quintet of warblers by George Boorujy, Photo © Mike Fernandez
By Jessica Law

Sometimes, it’s great writing that captures people’s attentions. Other times, a rousing speech is what’s needed to spur people into action. And occasionally, the only thing that can make busy people stop in their tracks and take notice is the towering image of a beautiful bird staring out at them from the side of a building.

In the modern age, fewer and fewer people experience nature in their everyday lives – especially if they live in cities. ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ is a growing concern, especially among young people: one US study found that the percentage of children who spend time outdoors every day has dropped from 76% to 26% in just one generation. This disconnect isn’t just bad for our physical and mental health – it also deeply affects our relationships with the natural world. Research also shows that experiences in nature can make people more willing to support conservation causes. Conversely, in the words of the ‘godfather of conservation’ Sir David Attenborough himself: “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

Swallow-tailed Kite (among others) by Lunar New Year, Photo © Mike Fernandez

To combat this, Audubon (BirdLife in the US) has been bringing birds into the cities, giving brown brick and grey concrete a splash of colour and beauty in the form of the Audubon Mural Project. To date, artists have emblazoned larger-than-life images of more than 100 North American species across the Harlem district of New York City: the former neighbourhood of eminent ornithologist and our Partner’s founder, John James Audubon.

John James Audubon and a Cerulean Warbler by Tom Sanford, Photo © Mike Fernandez

As well as harking back to the stunning illustrations that Audubon himself painted in the 19th century, these visual delights also have a deeper message: each of the species featured is directly threatened by climate change. For example, a warming climate will put the Cerulean Warbler Setophaga cerulea (Near Threatened) at much greater risk of wildfires in its forest habitat, according to Audubon’s latest 2019 climate report, Survival by Degrees. Ultimately, the project aims to create murals of all 314 North American bird species found to be threatened by global temperature rise in Audubon’s 2014 Birds and Climate Change report.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

 Williamson’s Sapsucker by ATM, Photo © Hillary Eggers

The murals are already beginning to have an impact. In an interview on the Audubon website, graffiti artist ATM recounts: “Literally every time I was painting, people were stopping and saying really nice things about how much they liked it, and how much they appreciated the improvement to the neighbourhood.”

In addition to providing a visual treat, they’re also succeeding in getting people thinking about conservation. After observing George Boorujy’s murals in Washington Heights, long-time resident Aida Rojas told Audubon: “Some of the most beautiful things created on this Earth have the weakness of not being able to defend themselves. I hope that each one of these birds has the opportunity to live on and express their beauty.”

Bald Eagle by Peter Daverington, Photo © Camilla Cerea

But it’s not just North America’s birds that are threatened by climate change. And it’s not just New York City residents that are disconnected from nature. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe, the intention was for the project to spread its wings to France: our French Partner, LPO, is helping Audubon and COAL, an arts and environmental non-profit, to highlight European species equally threatened by climate change across ten countries. The project was scheduled to launch this April in the Loire-Atlantique region, where John James Audubon grew up, followed by murals across France. The timeline from here is obviously unclear. But when normality finally does returns to the streets of France’s cities, what better way to celebrate than a splash of avian flair on brickwork?

Pinyon Jay by Mary Lacy, Photo © Mike Fernandez