Reimagining 200 of Audubon’s Birds

Artist Jenny Kendler creates a birds’ eye view of climate change. In her artwork, it’s us they’re watching.

(Hover above each eye to see its owner and read John James Audubon's original species description.) 

“Birds don’t vote or drive electric cars; we have to represent their interests,” says Chicago artist Jenny Kendler. Each eye gazing from this page represents one of 200 North American bird species vulnerable to extinction from climate change, according to Audubon's most recent scientific report. Take together, the eyes produce a mesmerizing portrait of what stands to be lost should humans do nothing to reduce carbon emissions—and how the natural world will bear witness.

The work is an evolution of Kendler’s Birds Watching sculpture, a 40-foot-long grouping of 100 reflective eyes mounted on aluminum and attached to a steel frame, which Audubon art director Kristina Deckert viewed at the Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, New York. “She has such a strong message—nature is watching us, waiting for us to act,” Deckert says—a perspective that Deckert felt provided the perfect end note to Audubon’s fall 2019 special issue on climate change.

To translate her three-dimensional concept into two dimensions for an Illustrated Aviary, Kendler decided to create a digital collage—also called Birds Watching. She carefully cut each eye, shown here to scale, from John James Audubon’s illustrations. "I love seeing the details of the eyes on their own, isolated from the birds. It gives John James Audubon’s work a whole new perspective,” Deckert says.

Kendler then arranged the eyes to suggest an ecosystem that’s been knocked out of order by human carelessness. “If we take clear, decisive, and speedy action on climate change now, these birds will be around for our children and grandchildren to enjoy,” Kendler says. “But if we don’t, they may slide off the page and disappear.”