Cats, Coal and Climate Change: the Real Bird Killers

Birds are tough little critters. Smaller birds will fend off bigger birds. Some birds will even fend off cats. Unfortunately they can’t fend off climate change. A new art project in upper Manhattan hopes to draw attention to their plight.

Avi Gitler wanted to beautify the Hamilton Heights neighborhood where he located his art gallery Gitler&___. He also wanted to pay homage to one of the neighborhood’s most prominent past residents - bird illustrator John J. Audubon, for whom the Audubon Society was named. Gitler set about commissioning artists and started a street art project painting murals of birds on the metal gates businesses pull down to protect their store fronts at night. He originally intended to paint 15 locations. 

Find locations for all murals and read information about the artists.

Then the Audubon Society got involved.

Tom Sanford, one of the commissioned artists, just happens to live next door to Vice President of Content for the Audubon Society, Mark Jannot. Sanford introduced the two and the project took on a much larger purpose. “Now the project goals are completely different - initially, I was only going to do 15 gates. After meeting with Audubon, I’m working on 314 murals,” says Gitler.

That number – 314 - is significant because it’s the number of species identified by a recent Audubon report that will be affected by shrinking and shifting habitats caused by climate change. It also represents over half of all North American bird species.

To complete the report, Audubon scientists used citizen observations and sophisticated climate models to identify the conditions birds need to survive, then mapped where those conditions will be found as climate change takes hold of the country. “It’s the closest thing we have to a field guide to the future of North American birds,” according to the report.

Find out which birds in your area might be impacted by searching for a specific species, state or region.

The report is an important part of the discussion about the need to reverse the seemingly unstoppable freight train known as climate change and Gitler hopes to draw attention to the problem through his public art installation.

Impacts like bird deaths increase the need to embrace clean, renewable energy sources like wind turbines and solar power. Of course, both of these technologies have come under heavy criticism because they too have a level of bird deaths associated with them.

A recent article in U.S. News & World Report evaluated numerous studies about bird deaths from different energy sources and production methods. The numbers cited in the article illustrate that wind and solar projects in the US do kills birds, but fossil fuel-related deaths are far greater. And the worst killer of birds? Cats.

Cats: 1.3 to 4 billion birds a year

Power Lines: 12 to 64 million birds a year

Coal: 7.9 million birds a year

Oil and Gas: 2 million birds a year

Building Collisions: 500,000 to 1 million birds a year

Nuclear: 330,000 birds per year

Wind: 140,000 to 328,000 birds a year

Solar: 20,000 birds a year

Take all of these numbers with a grain of salt, though, because the methodology behind each calculation is inconsistent so there might be some apples to oranges comparisons here. We would do ourselves and the birds a big favor if we dedicated research funds toward studying bird deaths. Regardless, the numbers above illustrate that cats are a menace, but the Audubon report clearly suggests that climate change (and by extension, fossil fuels) is a huge threat. Birds are in for a rough ride if we continue our dependence on fossil fuels, pump out more greenhouse gas emissions and push the boundaries of climate extremes.

Birds are an important part of our world. They are vital to ecosystem diversity, they help with pest control and seed transport and they are a major part of the food chain. Ensuring their survival is not just a pastime to be enjoyed by birdwatchers. Consider the canary in the coalmine. Loss of bird species affects us all through permanent alterations in our own ecosystems.

What can you do to help? The Audubon Society lists numerous steps you can take to protect our feathered friends: Learn about climate change and its impact on birds. Create a bird-friendly yard (no outdoor cats!) and talk to your neighbors about doing the same. Get involved with bird conservation activities like Audubon’s annual Great Backyard Bird Count. And perhaps most importantly, support emission-lowering technologies and policies.

Avi Gitler grew up in northern Manhattan and says he started the public art project because local residents “deserve to be as proud [of the neighborhood] as I am.” Like John J. Audubon before him, he hopes these bird illustrations will help people see the birds and the neighborhood in a new way. While he’s just getting started (Gitler jokes that if he’d stuck to the original scope the project would be done by now), he wants the project to grow and become “a great art project.” Gitler says he envisions “busloads of people coming to New York to see ‘the birds.’” John J. Audubon would undoubtedly be proud of this tribute to birds in his former backyard.

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Author’s Note:

Interestingly, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed over 1,000,000 coastal birds, according to the Audubon Society.