The Story of Birds Brought to Life in a Brushstroke

Text by Shauna Potocky. Photographs courtesy of Jane Kim.

Artist Jane Kim’s hand crafted installation, “From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Diversity and Evolution of Birds,” fills the largest wall of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Visitor Center in Ithaca, New York. Also known as The Wall of Birds, it is a striking art and education exhibit, unprecedented in its scope and absolutely stunning to see and explore.

The extraordinary hand painted piece blends the realism of scientific illustration with the dramatic character of the birds it represents. Commissioned by Cornell Lab as a celebration of its centennial, the project features 270 species of birds. Each bird is painted to scale and the artwork brings 243 families as well as 27 ancestors and five recently extinct relatives, into focus. The work connects the evolution and diversity of birds while demonstrating their distribution world-wide.

The project took two and half years to complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.
The project took two and half years to complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting. 

This month, Jane Kim, creator of Ink Dwell, an art studio inspiring people to love and protect the natural world one work of art at a time, took a moment from her schedule to share some of the key highlights of the Cornell project—from its vision, content, and life size scale to Cornell Lab’s dedication and commitment to handcrafted artwork.

Through the commissioning of this one-of-a-kind project, Cornell demonstrated how much it values scientific illustration, the of blending art, science and engagement as a meaningful tool for education. In total, the project scope took two and half years to develop and complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting.

A close up view of the Great Hornbill. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.
The Great Hornbill. 

Shauna Potocky:  This project is truly inspiring. What do you hope the project work conveys?

Jane Kim: The project is meant to convey the awe of how many birds there are in the world; it also demonstrates how remarkable it is that birds have diversified to such an extraordinary extent. To see two hundred families is remarkable, and they are life size, placed on a world map with relative scale, and viewable in one location.

SP: How can people see and experience the work?

JK: One of the best ways to see it is in person. Since it is featured inside the Cornell Lab Visitor Center, it can be viewed during normal visitor hours. In addition, Cornell is currently building a digital interactive that can be used to experience the wall and will be released in February 2016.  The interactive includes high-resolution images of every inch of the wall! This will allow viewers to zoom in to see the images—you will be able to see every brush stroke. It will allow viewers to select a bird, learn about it, and hear its call. One of the great features is that Cornell has the largest collection of sounds in the world.

SP: What was one of the most exciting aspects of the project?

JK: It is unprecedented—completing a hand painted mural of all the birds–it was such a large project and took so much time. Researching, learning the subjects, developing the work and then painting it. Cornell truly demonstrated that they value hand crafted murals and value the time it would take to complete such a piece. From start to finish it took two and half years and required 16 months of on site painting. Now the piece is bringing art and education to people and engaging them.

SP: What was the most challenging aspect of the project?

JK: The balance of art and science because there was a high demand for scientific accuracy. It was working with a high bar for accuracy and creating a portrait that captured the spirit of the bird. In addition, painting it so it can be viewed from all distances and still be viewed beautifully. The work needed to read beautifully in the interactive and from far away.

Jane Kim at work on the Wall of Birds, a project celebrating Cornell Labs centennial. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.
Jane Kim at work on the Wall of Birds, a project celebrating Cornell Labs centennial. 

SP: Were there any species of birds that captured you, that perhaps you had not known previously?

JK: I didn’t know each bird, so every bird was a surprise. I enjoyed discovering fun facts like the Saddle-bill Stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) with the only difference between male and female being the color of the eye. So I made it a female, with a yellow iris. I tried to depict females as much as I could, since males are often showier and represented.

The North Island Giant Moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae) female is also depicted because they are the bigger sex. There was a time when it was thought that they were two species—one being a subspecies because of the size differences. Testing showed that the birds were the same, males were smaller, females were larger.

Fun behaviors are also represented, such as the Long-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia linearis) with its fun little mating dance. There are also Gouldian Finches (Erythrura gouldiae), a set of three because they have three different head colors, yellow, black and red, but they are the same species.

SP: How do you hope this work touches people?

JK: I hope it is inspiring to see, and I hope it is statement that demonstrates how Cornell values hand painted creations that can be inspiring and useful tools for education. I hope it also inspires people to ask a lot of questions and sparks a new generation of scientific illustrators—we need that. I hope it allows others to think big, take the time and make the effort.

Taking a step back to get a view of the scope and scale of the project. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.
Taking a step back to get a view of the scope and scale of the project. 

In many ways “From So Simple A Beginning” is a remarkable gift—it celebrates 100 years of Cornell Lab’s work and endeavors for birds, while providing an unparalleled learning opportunity through quality artwork that also celebrates the profound and quiet power of scientific illustration—a field that is rarely discussed yet touches so many of our lives.

With the recent completion of “From So Simple a Beginning,” Jane Kim already has new projects in the works, including the next addition to the Migrating Mural—so stay tuned as we wait to see what her next projects and remarkable artwork have to teach us.

A Snowy Owl Winter

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus).  Photo by Christine Harris
Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Photo by Christine Harris

By Christine Harris

Many birders dream of seeing the elusive snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). So far the winter of 2013 has made that dream a reality for countless avian enthusiasts.  The snowy owl typically inhabits the Arctic and Northern Canada,  yet this winter there have been dozens of reports of sitings from across the contiguous United States, even as far south as Louisville, Kentucky.

According to Marshall Iliff, one of the project coordinators for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Ebird website, when populations of rodents such as lemmings are high, snowy owls experience high breeding success. If those rodent populations crash thereafter, overcrowded owls surge southward in search of food, with younger birds typically moving farther. These snowy owl “incursions” or “invasions” generally occur at least once a decade.  This year’s invasion is taking place primarily in Eastern North America, suggesting that the Eastern Arctic was a productive breeding ground for the birds this past summer, and that they are spreading out to find food.

When seeking suitable habitat and feeding grounds away from their Arctic homeland, snowy owls look for places reminiscent of the tundra: large, open areas with few trees to block their view of rodents scampering on the ground.  Many owls choose open coastal beaches and dunes, while those searching for feeding grounds further inland often settle for airports.  Historically, owls that have chosen to spend time at airports have met with mixed fates.

Birds found at airports are often viewed as a threat to safe aviation.  Remember the flock of geese that led to the “miracle on the Hudson?” In 1960 a plane that departed from Logan Airport in Boston crashed shortly thereafter due to a flock of starlings that were sucked up by the planes engines, killing 62 people.  There is no doubt that the threat to aviation posed by birds at airports is real, and different airports employ different methods for deterring birds from spending time on their runways–including frightening or killing them.  Over the years many snowy owls have been shot at airports; in fact, the only snowy owl to ever disperse to Hawaii was shot at the Honolulu Airport in 2012.

This winter the practice of shooting snowy owls at airports was brought to the attention of the general public when three were shot at New York’s JFK Airport.  Boston’s Logan International Airport has snowy owls visit almost every winter and has had a catch and release program in place for decades.  As of December 11, Norman Smith, director of Mass Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum, has captured and released 21 snowy owls at Logan Airport and it’s still early in the season.  The most captured in one year to date is 43, but this year could prove to be a record breaker.  Since the beginning of the program over 500 snowy owls have been safely removed from the runways at Logan.

When news broke of the killings at JFK, many asked why New York City did not institute a snowy owl program similar to Boston’s.  Public outrage over the incident led to the New York Port Authority’s decision to work with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation on establishing a catch and release program for New York City airports.  Hopefully New York’s program will meet with the same level of success as that of Boston and future generations of airport-bound snowy owls will be given a second chance.