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MEGAN THOMPSON: Walk these urban streets of Upper Manhattan and you just might catch a glimpse of a tundra swan or a roseate spoonbill — just a few of the birds native to North America, ones also painted by the 19th century artist John James Audubon, who lived nearby.
MARK JANNOT: You listen to these birds chirping and you’re like, “Oh my god. We may not- might not hear that sound in 50 years.”
MEGAN THOMPSON: Mark Jannot, a Vice President at the National Audubon Society, says the whimsical portraits of “The Audubon Mural Project” are meant to send a very serious message. A 2014 Audubon Society study found that half of all North American birds are threatened by climate change this century as their habitats shift and shrink.
MARK JANNOT: It might be a grassland bird, and it’s going to shift into areas that are forests, so that it won’t be suitable to live there.
MEGAN THOMPSON: To get the word out, the Audubon Society partnered with local art gallery owner Avi Gitler. He’s working with artists to paint all 314 of the threatened birds.
AVI GITLER: So far, we’ve painted about 45 birds. We have a long way to go before we finish the 314, but we’re hoping to have painted about 150 birds by the end of 2016.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Like the birds they depict, the murals can be tricky to spot. Many are painted on stores’ security gates, which are only rolled down when the business is closed. Some paintings cover entire walls. Others adorn panels inserted in doors and windows.
AVI GITLER: Over here you have a great painting by Tom Sanford who lives in the neighborhood. It’s John James Audubon contemplating the cerulean warbler. Over here you have a mallard by the Pennsylvania-based artist Graham Preston. The last two panels are of these two wonderful brown pelicans, one diving, and one about to be fed.
MARK JANNOT: There are a lot of birds on the list that people are surprised to learn that they’re threatened. For instance, the common loon, which is the state bird of Minnesota. By the end of this century, by 2080, will no longer be found in the state of Minnesota. The Baltimore Oriole will no longer be found in Baltimore. The Bald Eagle, our national bird, it is seen to be threatened by climate change in this century as well.
MARK JANNOT: This mural was the first one that we painted on the side of an entire building, our first big wall mural. The main bird here, that’s a swallow-tailed kite. That composition is exactly as John James Audubon painted that bird.
AVI GITLER: One of the things that the Audubon Society and I agreed on from the beginning was that we were going to allow the artists to express themselves. We weren’t looking to paint 314 birds in the style of John James Audubon. We wanted artists to come in and do something original, do something in their style.
EZO CU KILLZ: My grackle? He’s a badass grackle. He’s there with his wife. (laughs)
MEGAN THOMPSON: New York-based painter Ezo Cu Killz recently painted his grackles on the gate of an eye clinic.
EZO CU KILLZ: It’s a loud bird, and kind of like obnoxious, you know. It seems that it’s like a New York bird, even though he’s not from New York. I just got the picture of the grackle in my phone. I have an idea of the composition that I wanted to do. I wanted to add some structures behind it. So, it’s almost like nature versus technology. You know, just, you know, that’s the fight we’re in right now, and kind of finding the balance in that, which is what we’re trying to do with these pictures, you know, inform the public, and expand their mind.