A young visitor writes his #ClimateThing on a canvas alongside the Chicago skyline and a Peregrine Falcon, drawn by artist Jorge Felix. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

Audubon Climate Heroes

Finding Birds and Natural Beauty in an Urban Oasis

Audubon Chicago Region is sparking conversations about birds and climate change in the heart of the Windy City.

Millennium Park in Chicago sits nestled among skyscrapers, train tracks, and busy city streets, providing a green oasis amid the hubbub of the Loop. But this summer, visitors found more than trees and flowers—they also found birds and other natural beauty that’s at risk from climate change. From July through August, Audubon Chicago Region hosted a weekly outreach project in the park to talk with people about how our warming climate affects birds.

The outreach coincided with an Art Institute of Chicago exhibit of Jean-Luc Mylayne’s avian photographs, which included an outdoor pavilion next to Lurie Garden in Millennium Park. The pavilion will be open through fall 2015.

The setting is more than just a beautiful space in a prominent part of the city, though; Lurie Garden is full of many native plants and pollinators. “It’s in this massive urban canyon of huge, huge buildings, sandwiched right between the lake and Michigan Avenue. It’s a natural segue to talk about how birds come in and use these urban oases during migration,” says Thomas Barnes, program associate for Bird-Friendly Communities with Audubon Chicago Region.

Birds Come to Life Through Artwork

Local artist Jorge Felix of the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance joined Audubon Chicago Region for the project. Felix worked with passersby to create five collaborative art pieces featuring local "spokesbirds" threatened by climate change: the Bald Eagle, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, the Tree Swallow, the Mallard, and the Peregrine Falcon.

A girl adds to the Peregrine Falcon artwork in Millennium Park. Peregrine Falcons are one of five climate-threatened birds featured in the outreach project. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

The art projects took place each Thursday afternoon and included paintings, stencils, and a “living mural” painted onto a huge canvas. Teen artists from an After School Matters camp helped create the mural and talked with passersby about why climate change matters to them. The campers invited people to trace their hands onto the canvas, then write their #ClimateThing inside the outline. Some people wrote “polar bears” or other favorite animals, while one visitor wrote “Live long and prosper” and got into an animated discussion about Star Trek.

To complete the image, the teens painted a Bald Eagle with outstretched wings at the top of the canvas. The eye-catching artwork got a lot of passersby interested and talking about the birds, says Barnes. “Everybody recognizes [the Bald Eagle], it’s the national symbol, but it’s climate-threatened.”

The Bald Eagle mural has been displayed at Humboldt Park Field House and will be shown at other arts and nature organizations in the Chicago area. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

During the outreach project, Red-winged Blackbirds were often singing nearby—a species many people relate to since they’ve either seen them before “or been dive-bombed by them,” Barnes laughs. Staff and visitors talked about habitat for birds and conserving a healthy environment for future generations. People could also learn more about Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report through handouts and maps. 

Continuing the Conversation

Conversations are a powerful way to connect with people about protecting birds, says Barnes. “The basic step that we’re trying to do is connect to people on a personal level...and inspire them with practical steps.” He says that Audubon Chicago Region has built stronger relationships with the community through these first five weeks of outreach, and this September they’ll continue the conversation through bird walks and other special programs at Lurie Garden.

The outreach asked visitors to share: "What's your #ClimateThing?" Tree Swallows drawn by Jorge Felix helped provide inspiration. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

And some of the featured birds are going on the road to keep spreading the word: The Bald Eagle mural is being displayed at nature museums and arts organizations around Chicago.

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Bald Eagle. Photo: Don Berman/Audubon Photography Awards