No need for binoculars: A peregrine falcon with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet towers over pedestrians on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In a sliver of park across from the Lincoln Center performing arts complex, a red-necked grebe the size of a park bench carries three chicks atop its back. And farther uptown a snowy owl, at eye level with passersby, appears poised to take flight.
These are the Birds on Broadway—an installation of giant wooden sculptures by artist Nicolas Holiber that’s designed to raise awareness of climate change’s impact on imperiled local birds. The 10 pieces are placed along the median of Broadway in Manhattan, stretching from 64th Street all the way up to 157th Street.
Holiber—who partnered with the city’s Parks Department, the Broadway Mall Association, the art gallery Gitler &_____, and the New York City Audubon to mount the project—says all 10 species are climate endangered or climate threatened, based on Audubon’s habitat predictions. And all are native New Yorkers or frequent visitors, the kinds of birds you see in the city’s parks, tucked into nooks on the facades of skyscrapers, or wading in the shallows of the city’s ponds and rivers.
The idea for the project dates back to 2014, before both President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and, more recently, the U.N.’s devastating report on the looming extinction crisis. “It’s been interesting, as things have changed from a policy standpoint, to watch the larger message of the exhibition shift,” Holiber says. “It’s made the work more poignant and meaningful.”
The bird sculptures themselves took a year to build. For the first six months of 2018, Holiber worked on the flock’s wooden frames, using reclaimed lumber from Big Reuse, a surplus salvage vendor in Brooklyn, and scraps he collected from the streets. He spent the remainder of the year on the birds’ plumage with the help of his studio assistant, Bishop Mcindoe. Without following a blueprint, they applied and reapplied the feathers, making decisions as they went.
“I don’t work from drawings or models,” Holiber says. “I could spend two days on something and on the third day realize it’s not what I wanted. It forces me to figure that out on the piece itself.”
Though Holiber has frequently used reclaimed wood in his large-scale sculptures and treated it with chemicals to preserve it, this time he left the raw materials untreated. “That was a really important point of the work,” he says. “The only real protection against the elements is the paint”—a mirror of living birds’ vulnerability to the elements.
These real-life conditions are, of course, getting worse as the planet rapidly warms. According to National Audubon’s 2014 climate report, climate change directly imperils 314 bird species, 145 of which live in or regularly pass through New York City. Audubon’s climate models predict that shrinking and shifting habitat ranges could threaten half of all birds in the United States by 2100.
For example, the common goldeneye, a duck that frequents New York Harbor, may soon become much less common. Because of the damage to sensitive ecosystems caused by climate change, Audubon predicts that more than two-thirds of the duck’s core summer range will become unstable by 2080.
Other bird habitats could fare even worse. For the double-crested cormorant—the model for Holiber’s wooden sculpture perched at 105th Street and Broadway—just 21 percent of its current summer range could remain stable. And because Audubon predicts that the bird’s habitat will shift north to Canada’s boreal forest, where cormorants don’t typically breed, the species may struggle to adapt.
Holiber hopes his sculptures will serve as a reminder that people share their homes, even one as densely urban as New York City, with birds and other wildlife, and that we need to work to protect them.
“I’ve definitely started noticing bird life in the city more,” says Holiber. He recalls recently coming across a red-tailed hawk perched in a tree in a park near his apartment in Brooklyn as it devoured a pigeon caught in its talons. Thrilled, a group of kids gathered round, shouting and pointing.
The artist also has spotted a scarlet tanager. “They’re crazy. They’re these little bright-red dots. They look like they should be in South America.” (You can see five of Holiber’s big wooden versions of the tanager gathered in a row on 86th Street.)
“It’s made me really conscious of how important green space is in the city—not just for the people who live here but for the wildlife that lives here, too.”
Nicolas Holiber’s Birds on Broadway is on view in New York City through January 2020. For a map with locations of the sculptures, click here.
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