Using Street Art to Raise Awareness of Imperiled Birds

According to a study facilitated by BirdLife, there are more than 1,300 bird species threatened with extinction. Among them are hundreds that don’t have the benefit of being household names and whose decline have likely gone largely unnoticed.

Species like the California condor and the bald eagle benefit from high-profile conservation efforts that turned their fates around, but what about curlews? Have you ever heard of them?

Snipe painting on the wall at Bollo Bridge Road
Snipe painting on the wall at Bollo Bridge Road, London W3. (Image: ATM)

Since 2014, British street artist ATM has been working to change our collective social blindness of lesser-known imperiled birds by placing impressive portraits in public spaces in the UK, Europe, and New York.

The approach is simple and effective; featuring detailed and accurate portraits of birds over bright solid-color backgrounds and juxtaposed against industrial surfaces in urbanized settings.

Bringing images of birds displaced (or otherwise imperiled) by human activities right back into the center of those activities restores their presence in ways that the video and photographic instruments commonly wielded by conservationists just can’t match. There is a physical presence brought about by these paintings. They are instantly arresting, highly engaging works that easily lend themselves to inclusion in our connected Instagram-mediated society.

A red-faced warbler painted on the wall at 601 West 162 St. in New York City as part of the Audubon Mural Project. (Image: Audubon Society)

They also are composed in a way that naturally stimulates curiosity and conversation. There is no text to accompany the paintings beyond the artist’s signature (and in some cases a website link), spurring the viewer to do the kind of inquisitive research that helps them discover the birds’ plight.

"The jay" by ATM is found in South Acton London W3
“The jay” by ATM is found in South Acton London W3. (Image: ATM)

ATM’s choice of placement for his works also appears to be very specific and tailored to the conservation concerns and opportunities relative to the countries in which he paints.

In New York, he painted birds like the red-faced warbler (Cardella rubifrons) which is threatened by climate change in Arizona and New Mexico.

In Norway, he painted a white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) as an expression of gratitude to the people of Norway who provided Scotland with a population of the birds in the 1970’s after the species was driven to extinction in Britain.

In London, he painted a goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) to highlight their persecution and the fact that they were once driven to extinction in England prior to informal reintroduction in the 1960’s.

It is a well-targeted, personalized approach and it makes his work even more effective at bringing imperiled birds to the forefront of local consciousness.

A goldfinch by ATM at Berrymede School, Acton, London W3. (Image: Inspiring City)

You can learn more about ATM in this piece by The Guardian and in this one by the Audubon society. There’s also this piece by the blog Inspiring City.

In closing, here are some thoughts straight from the artist:

Ultimately we can, and must, welcome birds and ecological abundance back to our country.

Birds are often the most noticeable creatures to disappear, their loss the warning sign that something is fundamentally wrong in the way we treat our environment. They are the canary in the mine.

We as human beings are very much a part of the whole web of nature, dependent on a healthy environment like every other living creature. It is so easy to forget this in our modern industrialized world where we are insulated by comfort and technology. We must learn a greater love and respect for other living things if we are to avert global disaster.

My hope is that together we really can bring about fundamental change in modern farming practices, city planning and local Council approaches to public land.

It’s a matter of culture. We need to see untidiness and unruliness as a virtue that makes life possible for myriad creatures, instead of something that must be curtailed.

I want to see towns and cities rich in wildflowers, a countryside with dense hedges, ponds, vast reed beds, new forests, woodland and little copses.

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