Did you know that 2018 is the Year of the Bird? Earlier this year the National Audubon Society, National Geographic, BirdLife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced this yearlong avian commemoration, timed with the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It celebrates that act’s protection of migratory birds, and recognizes the enduring threats to their natural and urban habitats.
At Wave Hill in the Bronx, there are two exhibitions that consider the modern bird. Although not affiliated with the Year of the Bird, they’re lively portals into conservation, the biodiversity of New York City, and the artistic influence of birds. Avifauna: Birds + Habitat is a group exhibition in the Glyndor Gallery focuses on these ideas, and the smaller solo show Ecolegiac: Missing Birds of NYC in the Wave Hill House features Gabriel Willow’s drawings of extinct area birds overlaid on contemporary photographs. Labrador ducks, last seen in 1878, are returned to the East River, and Carolina parakeets, extinct in the wild since 1904, perch in the trees of Union Square.
Willow, who is both an artist and a naturalist who leads birding tours at Wave Hill, served as an advisor for Avifauna. Organized by Jennifer McGregor, Eileen Jeng Lynch, and Natika Soward, the exhibition takes a broad view, from artists who are birders like Fred Tomaselli and Peter Morgan — the latter sculpts larger-than-life ceramics of his sightings — to a sound installation by Jenna Spevack. Birdsongs are powered by pinwheels outside one window, each representing a different local bird, whether the house finch or mourning dove, with the level of wind making its call either calm or a cacophony.
The two artists play on our tendency to idealize nature, with Paula McCartney’s photographs of craft-store birds positioned in the wild, scientific labels adding to their deception, and Nina Katchadourian’s ambiguous “Too Late” (2003), which includes those ominous words on the eggs in a bird’s nest. Despite the eclectic range of the art, the exhibition is not overwhelming in its material, and all the work draws attention to the sometimes precarious world of birds around us.
Many pieces directly respond to the local ecology. Jeff Mertz’s video documentary has bird footage from Wave Hill, Central Park, Prospect Park, Jamaica Bay, and Governors Island, while Tanya Chaly was inspired by Eugene Bicknell, one of the first naturalists to study bird variety in the Bronx and the Riverdale neighborhood in which Wave Hill is located. Her drawings of birds, framed beneath convex glass, like Victorian specimens, are punctured with patterns of migration paths, food webs, and other charts sourced from scientific documents.
Sarah Nicholls similarly investigated nature close to home, creating artist books that act as field guides on urban wildlife, such as the shore birds and osprey of Jamaica Bay. One whole room is consumed by James Prosek’s wall painting, which has silhouettes of a blooming dogwood tree and spring birds, particularly warblers, in a style reminiscent of birding guidebooks. In the next space, Marna Chester’s sculptures of bald eagles are supported by frames made from compost and other natural material found at Wave Hill.
Step out from the gallery, and you’ll notice tropical birds perched in the bushes and trees. They’re part of Tatiana Arocha’s ongoing Perpetual Flight project. The digital painting series visualizes birds that are being thrown off their usual migration courses because of climate change, and it was sparked by the painted bunting that caused a stir when it appeared in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in 2015, diverted from its historic migration path. As the birds return to New York City this spring, including lush escapes like Wave Hill, it’s worth taking a moment to observe their flight and habitats. Climate change and urban development impact the future of all species who call this area home, and recognizing and protecting the lives of birds can have implications beyond the avian world.