It sounds like the pipe dream of a life-long birder: fly me somewhere I can see a representative of every major family of birds alive today in the same place at the same time. And since I’m wishing, I might as well add that I want to see their ancestors, too, lined up in a parade of ghosts. Ridiculous, right?

The funny thing is, such a place exists — in upstate New York. That’s because at the visitor’s center at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the paint is barely dry on a mural of epic proportions. Close in size to the footprint of a 3000-square-foot house, it depicts a true-to-size representative of every major family of birds on an enormous world map. Not only that, but beneath the riotous colorful birds is a parade of ghostly ancestors representing 375 million years of evolution, starting with the first plucky vertebrate that made its way onto land: my old pal, Tiktaalik.

With digital technology as ubiquitous as it is, how does a hand-painted mural like this come to be? I spoke with Dr. John Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the lab and a key figure in making it a reality, and the principal artist, Jane Kim of Ink Dwell Studios, to get the scoop.

From So Simple a Beginning
"From So Simple a Beginning" is the official name of the mural by Jane Kim of Ink Dwell Studio at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Squeezing this mural into 540 pixels is nothing short of a travesty, but imagine it on a wall 70 feet by 40 feet and I promise I'll show close ups further down. Image courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


Making the Mural a Reality

When Kim, fresh out of the certificate program for scientific illustration at Monterey Bay, came to intern at Cornell’s 4-month Bartels Illustration program, she was surrounded by giants. The Cornell Lab has long  celebrated the connection between ornithology and art; the halls of the research center are adorned with the artwork of Audubon, Catesby, and Fuertes. More recently, the lab has brought in contemporary artists as well - Maya Lin, Andy Goldsworthy, and James Prosek - to leave their marks with large science art installations of their own. The thought that Kim's work might in short order be displayed alongside these giants was the farthest thing from her mind at the time.

Instead, Kim did what other interns before her had done: help ornithologists at the lab illustrate their research projects. But she was already thinking big; during her internship she entered and won the Viewer’s Choice Award in a National Geographic competition for conservation murals. When her supervisor, Dr. Fitzpatrick, learned of this, he pulled her from her desk and took her outside for a chat.

Fitzpatrick, a painter himself, had long dreamed of a mural celebrating the evolution of birds since the department moved into its new building in 2003. He even knew where the mural should go - an enormous 70’ x 40’ wall inside the visitor’s center that stared blankly at him every day. In fact, he had approached several artists about it but they declined, citing the enormous commitment it would take. So Fitzpatrick shelved his ambitious idea. That is, until Kim came along and revealed her penchant for thinking big. When he approached her, she didn’t hesitate. The next day she produced a proposal for the 400-million-year evolution of birds and the project was underway.

From So Simple a Beginning
That is one big wall to fill! Image courtesy of Ink Dwell

Well, almost. Of course it wasn’t that easy. It took years to hammer out the details of the project including - no surprise - how to pay for it. But, a funny thing about birds - they enjoy a passionate following and the lab was able to raise enough money for Kim to dedicate herself to the project full-time for close to two years. Three years after Kim and Fitzpatrick had the initial conversation about the possibility of a mural, Kim dove in. She spent a year off-site compiling reference photos (at least 50 per bird), researching, sketching, and refining the narrative as a whole while the researchers involved argued about which species to include (!). In August of 2014 she moved back to Ithaca to begin 16 months of on-site painting. Painting an average of a bird a day, and with the help of seven interns, she finished the project at the end of 2015.

Mural detail:
Left to right: Montezuma Oropendola, Wrenthrush, Three-wattled bellbird, and Dusky-faced tanager, chillin' in Central America. Photo by Shailee Shah
Mural detail:
Gray-necked wood-rail (left) and Horned Screamer. Photo by Shailee Shah
Mural detail:
The species in the parade of ghosts were left in black and white for both practical reasons (we don't have definitive evidence of their coloration) and artistic ones. Pictured here, left to right: Caudipteryx, Hesperornis, Presbyornis. Photo by Shailee Shah

If you’re sitting in one of the other 19,340-something incorporated towns or cities in America that doesn't happen to be within an hour's drive of Ithaca, NY, you may be thinking, “Who on earth will get to see this?” Well, I have some good news. Their already excellent website has a smattering of tantalizing images from the project and by the end of 2016 there should be an online an interactive of the entire wall. That means you, your granny, and your cat will soon be able to explore the wall for a wealth of information on the birds it depicts. If the website delivers as promised, it will be an impressive online education tool for the general public for decades to come.

Later this week, I'll be sharing some behind the scenes images of the project in progress, so stay tuned. Now someone fly me to Ithaca, please!


Wall of Birds website
Ink Dwell studio
More about The Cornell Lab Visitor’s Center art installations by contemporary artists Andy Goldsworthy, James Prosek, Maya Lin and now Jane Kim