Flying Gardens of Maybe

Artist Andrew S. Yang coaxes new life from seeds that bird-strike victims consumed, turning dead ends into second chances.
Four photos, from left: A dead juvenile American Robin with an orange-mottled chest; a hand holds the glistening stomach of a Mourning Dove; against a red background seeds of different colors are arranged in concentric circles; two slender green plants grow in a brown, white, and black ceramic pot.
From left: juvenile American Robin; Mourning Dove stomach; seeds a Swainson’s Thrush carried; the garden that grew from the seeds collected from the thrush. Photos: Andrew S. Yang

In 2012 Andrew S. Yang was chatting with a colleague about Charles Darwin, marveling at how the famed naturalist once gathered seeds from mud caked onto a bird and grew 82 plants representing five species. It got him thinking about the seeds modern birds carry. 

Yang, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is also a research associate at the Field Museum of Natural History, where scientists preserve birds for its permanent collection. Many of those birds died colliding into buildings in the Chicago area and were brought in by the volunteer group Chicago Bird Collision Monitors

Every year, hundreds of millions of birds die after hitting buildings in the United States alone. Each bird-strike death is a tragedy, but Yang sees a secondary disaster in their demise: a dead end for the seeds they consumed—what he calls the “ecology of interruption.” Now a decade in the making, his project Flying Gardens of Maybe gives the seeds he removes from casualties’ bellies the life they could have had if the bird continued flying and deposited them on fertile soil.

He throws clay pots and glazes them in colors, patterns, and textures evocative of the seeds’ avian couriers, including White-throated Sparrow, Swainson’s Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, and Canada Goose. Yang plants the seeds in the corresponding vessel, one pot per bird. As in nature, some sprout; most don’t.

“Some people think it’s horribly grisly,” Yang says. “I see it as celebrating the birds and the plants.” A way to honor and bring attention to life needlessly lost. 

Yang, whose Ph.D. is in ecology and evolution, hopes people come away from his project with a greater sense of interconnectedness. “Birders are interested in birds, plant people are interested in plants, people who live in the city are interested in skyscrapers, and all of these things interact together in different ways, for better or for worse,” he says. “I would hope that someone would come away with a little more of a complex understanding about these interrelationships.”

Sometimes, instead of planting the seeds, Yang returns them to his own back porch feeder in the hope that another bird will come along and help them continue their journey. Yang has also photographed the seeds, stones, and insect fragments he has found and printed postcards to be sent by airmail, so the seeds can, at least metaphorically, fly again.

This story originally ran in the Spring 2022 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.