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Endangered Birds, Street Art, and Racism: A Pandemic Story

By BETH HARPAZ

“Spark bird” is the term for a bird that triggers one’s interest in bird-watching. City College Professor Emily Raboteau uses the phrase in the title of her extraordinary essay in Orion Magazine, “Spark Bird: Bearing witness to New York’s endangered species.” 

The story begins as an homage to bird murals commissioned by the Audubon Mural Project in Harlem and Washington Heights. But it unfolds as a complex meditation on racism, the pandemic, gentrification, and environmental threats to both wildlife and humans, especially people of color.

Raboteau’s “spark bird” isn’t a real bird. It’s an owl painting on a shuttered storefront. Soon she’s noticing bird murals on dozens of rolled-down metal gates. Turns out there are more than 120 bird murals around Upper Manhattan, where the 19th century ornithologist John James Audubon once lived. Known for his illustrated masterpiece Birds of America, Audubon is buried in a church cemetery at 155th Street.

Initially, Raboteau is delighted by the art. She photographs all the murals she can find. They’re easier to spot as the pandemic progresses: More metal gates are down because so many businesses closed. 

Gradually, though, Raboteau sees the murals in a different way. Though this was not the project’s intent, she notes that commissioned street art often paves the way for gentrification, a phenomenon already well under way in the area. 

Then, on the same day that George Floyd dies in Minneapolis under the knee of a white police officer, a white woman calls the cops on a Black bird-watcher in Central Park. 

“I am the mother of Black children in America,” Raboteau says. “It’s not possible for me to consider the threats posed to birds without also considering the threats posed to us.” 

One of the Audubon project’s goals is to highlight connections between environmental threats to wildlife (there are 3 billion fewer birds in the U.S. and Canada than 50 years ago) and threats to humans, especially in poor neighborhoods disproportionately burdened by pollution. Raboteau’s children, like many kids in Upper Manhattan, suffer from asthma. But during the pandemic shutdown, “traffic dried up on the George Washington Bridge. Without the usual car fumes, the air uptown grew impossibly clear.”

At the same time, though, “nine of the ten Manhattan zip codes with the most COVID-19 cases were located uptown,” Raboteau writes. “The shriek of ambulances was incessant. The medical director of a local ER committed suicide, unable to take the strain.”  

The pandemic’s 2020 peak also overlapped with spring migration, when millions of birds heading north fly over the city. As the din of ordinary urban life receded, the city’s “soundtrack was dominated by two remarkable strains of music: birdsong and sirens.” 

The Audubon murals, Robateau says, were “the backdrop to a grief I was yet to figure out how to grasp, much less memorialize: the lopsided COVID deaths among the Black and brown poor in environmentally hazardous zip codes such as ours.” 

Bird-watching, if nothing else, was “a way of bearing witness.”