Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Webinar – Seeds of Potential: Art Reimagines How Birds and Buildings Collide

Webinar – Seeds of Potential: Art Reimagines How Birds and Buildings Collide
December 8, 2021

Amanda Sciandra:
I'm Amanda Sciandra from the National Museum of Natural History. I'm a brown-haired woman wearing a blue shirt sitting in front of a full bookshelf and a window with a plant. On screen, you can see a photograph taken of Andrew Yang's work in the Unsettled Nature exhibition, and the date time and title of tonight's event, Seeds of Potential: How Birds and Buildings Collide. Thank you for joining us. As people continue to trickle in, I'm just going to go through our standard housekeeping notes for those of you who are new to our programs. First, closed captions are available by clicking the arrow next to the CC button on the zoom toolbar. We'll open up for audience Q&A after the conversation, but please feel free to submit your questions at any time in the Q&A box on that toolbar. The Q&A goes by so quickly, so please help us answer as many questions as possible by submitting your questions as you have them. If your question is for someone specific, please let us know when you submit it. Okay, so let's get going here.

This discussion is the third of a series of talks this fall and winter with artists featured in one of our current exhibitions, Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans. You can find out more about the series by follow the link in the Q&A. If you have joined us for the first session with photographer, David Maisel, or the second with artist Ellie Irons, thanks for coming back. This is your first event on the series, we're so glad you're here, and hope to see you again. If you're curious about the rest of the series, check out that link.

Tonight's featured artist is Andrew S. Yang. Andrew will be in conversation with Chris Milensky, Collection Manager in the Division of Birds at Natural History and Helena van Vliet, Philadelphia-based biophilic architect, urbanist and educator. The discussion will be moderated by Scott Wing, co-curator of the Unsettled Nature exhibition. Scott, who you may recognize from our last event, is a research geologist and curator of paleobotany at the National Museum of Natural History, whose research focuses on fossil plants and the history of climate change between 70 and 40 million years ago, last part of the age of dinosaurs and the first part of the age of mammals.

As a curator, he's responsible for the Mesozoic and Cenozoic fossil plant collections at this Smithsonian, was part of the core team, designed our new fossil hall, and most recently, is a co-curator of the subject of tonight's program, the Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on Age of Humans exhibition. Scott is going to tell you more about the exhibition before introducing our guests, Andrew, Chris, and Helena. Thank you to our panelists and to all of you for joining. Scott, I turn it over to you.

Scott Wing:
Thanks very much for the introduction, Amanda. It's a pleasure to be with everyone this evening and to be in conversation with Andrew Yang, one of seven artists included in the Unsettled Nature exhibition. Before I introduce the featured guests, I want to take a few moments to provide an overview of the exhibition, which will be on view here at the Natural History Museum through March of next year. The exhibit is a result of a curatorial collaboration between myself and Joanna Marsh, who's the head of interpretation and audience research at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. If you've attended other events in this series, you know that the exhibit and the artist featured within it mean to capture the idea that humans now influence all of the systems that we used to think of as natural.

In September, we talked to the artist, David Maisel. That was a conversation that Joanna Marsh headed up about the juxtaposition of beauty and damage seen through his aerial photography, and you can see a striking example here. This is an aerial photograph of a waste pond at a Nevada mine site. The idea there was that the striking colors and bald shapes draw you in for just long enough to make you wonder how they got there and then perhaps lead you to think about whether they should be there or not.

In October, the artist, Ellie Irons helped us to rethink our notions of nature and beauty through her photographs of wild urban lots. We asked questions about what's a weed, what's an invasive plant, how are they different, what is exactly their meaning, and also discussed how the value of urban plant communities is often underestimated. That's what's happened in the past. In January, we're going to chat with Bethany Taylor, whose tapestries and fiber drawings on the museum's walls as part of the exhibition illustrates some of the intricate connections among organisms in an ecosystem, and they also illustrate some of the ways in which those ecosystems are disrupted and in which the links between organisms are broken. check out the virtual links in the Q&A to watch the recordings of the first two programs if you've missed them and where to check back for more info about upcoming events in this series.

What's unique about the show is that it is an art exhibit within a science museum. The museum that I'm used to working in here shares scientific facts and knowledge, and we try to tell it like it is. But of course, the job of an artist is to help people notice new things to feel what it is, as well as to get information about them. The museum is not just an archive or a collection of things in drawers, it's often a nexus point for ideas for exchange and for the general of new knowledge. The work of Andrew Yang, who's tonight's featured artist, takes a creative and curious approach to utilizing museum collections to learn more about an issue affecting bird populations, that is collisions with buildings. Andrew recovered seeds from the crops of birds that died after striking urban windows and had ended up in the collections of the Field Museum in Chicago, as well as in our own National Museum of Natural History collections. He then planted those seeds to see what could have been these possible gardens.

It's now my pleasure to introduce Andrew and our other distinguished analysts for tonight's discussion. Andrew S. Yang works across the visual arts, natural sciences, and his projects have been exhibited from Oklahoma to Yokohama, that's a tongue twister, including the 14th Annual Istanbul Biennial, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Spencer Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. He holds a PhD in biology from Duke University and an MFA in Visual Arts from Leslie College of Art and Design. His recent curatorial projects include Earthly Observatory at SAIC galleries and Making Kin, worlds becoming for the center of humans and nature. Yang was inaugural artist in residence at the Yale-NUS College in Singapore, professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and he's a research associate at the Field Museum of Natural history.

We'll be joined by Chris Milensky, who's the collection manager in the Division of Birds at the Natural History Museum here at the Smithsonian. As collections manager, he's responsible for the care of the museum's Avian Research collection, which consists of over 600,000 specimens. Chris has traveled extensively conducting bird surveys in South America, Asia, and Africa, and while facilitating access to the collections for researchers around the world, he works closely with scientists using the NMNH collections, as well as overseeing the proper care and handling of specimens.

Our third panelist is Helena van Vliet. Helena is an internationally-recognized expert in biophilic design. She's a biophilic architect, urbanist and educator based in Philadelphia. She's a steering committee member for the International Biophilic Cities Network and president of Bio Philly, which seeks to promote the important link between human health and wild habitat biodiversity in urban Philadelphia. After our conversation, we'll open up to ask the panelists your questions, so again, please feel free to ask them at any time. With that, I'd like to welcome Andrew, Chris and Helen to this virtual stage.

An exciting part of tonight's discussion about birds collisions is that our panelists represent somewhat of an information ecosystem of their own. Chris, the research and collections, Andrew, curiosity, inspiration, and ENA, perhaps more practical responses to the problem of bird collisions. What we're looking at here is a graphic overview of Andrew's Flying Gardens of Maybe. Let's start with you, Andrew. Give us the backstory of the project and tell us about this image.

Andrew S. Yang:
Thanks, Scott. Also, I just want to, again, thank the National Museum of Natural History for putting on this exhibition. It's really exciting to see the visual arts becoming an integral part of also the wider natural history and science education of the institution. Yeah. This is an ecological mapping or diagram schematic of the project overall, and I think we'll revisit this again later in the talk at different times, so it's not important to grasp everything. The key thing is the circle that emerges in the middle, where we see birds flying and then looping back, but then colliding, in that case, it looks like with the Hancock Tower in Chicago. The story of this project came actually out of a conversation, a conversation I was having with a photographer named, artist named Claire Pentecost.

Claire was describing to me something she had read that Darwin had supposedly written about finding a seabird and scraping the bottom muddy foot of the bottom of that seabird and taking that mud and growing 70 different species of plants out of it. I thought that was such an interesting, but probably apocryphal story, and I was like, "Huh, where would the seeds be on a bird anyway?" Then I was like, "Well, of course, they would be probably inside the bird, not necessarily on its feet, although I'm sure sometimes they end up there." After all, that's the conceit of the plant and the fruit and is this relationship of mutualism and dispersal.

I had that conversation in my mind and then happened to also one day be walking through the Bird Lab at the Field Museum of Natural History, because as you mentioned, I'm a research associate there. I was working on a different project, but I saw the birds that were being brought into the Bird Lab. If we go to the next slide, we can see something about, now the birds that were being brought into the Bird Lab were part of this flux of migrating birds that go north and south throughout all these different flyways. One in the middle there is actually called the Mississippi Flyway and Chicago is a part of that. One thing that will happen when these birds are especially migrating in the fall or the spring, is that they'll end up getting confused by a number of different things, especially in a big city like Chicago. One of them is, in some cases the reflective surfaces of glass.

Skyscrapers, and Chicago is the home of the skyscraper, often have reflective glass in which a bird might mistake a glass panel in front of it with an open sky, because it's reflecting the space behind it. Or in the nighttime, this is a National Geographic photograph, you see that birds that are in migration might also be attracted to the light or confused and also end up striking buildings. At least a few years ago, I know Chicago was ranked as the most light polluted city in North America, and so this has a really adverse effect on a lot of these birds. What effect would that be is really the collisions with the glass. If we go to the next slide, when I came to the Bird Lab that day and I saw a bunch of dead birds and a bunch of people who I don't usually see, they were members of the Chicago bird collision monitors, who had brought the birds in that morning.

This is a group of volunteers who search scour Chicago land in the early hours looking for birds. A lot of those birds have, during the migration season have, have collided into the buildings. Now some of those birds are just stunned and they're brought to facilities, wildlife rehabilitation centers, but at others that are dead on arrival are brought then to the Field Museum. Here's just a group of them from one Wednesday morning, just from one volunteer that had been collected. I came to find out that these birds then were being sorted to become part of the collection there at the museum. One thing that came to mind was that conversation I had with Claire and about where would you find seeds? Then I started asking the people in the Bird Lab, "Oh! Well, what do you do with these birds?" They remove the feathers, they skeletonize them, but then they seem to actually throw the innards away. That was another part of a conversation where I started to get interested in, "Huh, I wonder if you could find seeds in there?" That's a general backstory about it.

Scott Wing:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I wanted to toss a question to Chris and there may be two questions in this. Chris, your piece of this relates to the collections of our museum. If you could just comment a little bit on what Andrew said, how what you do relates to that, but also something that it was implied in what Andrew just talked about. There must be an awful lot of specimens of common birds. I'm curious, I think it might be an interesting thing for the audience to hear. Why do museums keep multiple specimens of common things?

Chris Milensky:
Yeah, that's an interesting point. As you mentioned, we have over 600,000 specimens of birds and there's only about 10,000 species of birds in the world, so that means we have a lot of duplicates. One of the reasons for that is that there is a lot of variation within birds across their range. You want to try to have as broad a representation of the species as possible. One example which sometimes we use is that having just one, like the picture on here is a cat bird, having just one cat bird is like having just one example of a human being.

You look at him, everybody's a little bit different and there's all sorts of different variations within each species, so that's why we try to collect numerous individuals of each specimen, but also from different parts of the world and also from different time spans, because there are things that change as you go through time, whether it might be just evolution itself where things are changing within the actual structure of and bodies of the birds or climate change or whether it's pesticide use and showing change over time. There's lots of examples of that as to why we, not only do we need to have good representation, but we also need to continue to collect specimens.

Scott Wing:
Thanks very much. Helena, in some ways, your work represents the action component that comes out of thinking about or seeing these collisions. What do we do with that knowledge? Tell us a little bit about your work as it relates to birds and buildings and what excites you about the opportunities to see changes in what's going on there.

Helena van Vliet:
Yes, thank you. First, I want to say that I was deeply moved by this entire project memorializing the life of each bird, and Chris just mentioned the individuality of each bird, honoring this individuality and honoring the grief as well as the possibility that he sees. The building industry, of course, represents in the graphic that we just show, just looked at in the circle, the ecological, I think you called it the ecological. What did you call it? Re-routing point number one. This, of course, is where the journey ends much too often for too many birds.

In our pre-meeting, we talked a lot about biodiversity and the death of each of these beautiful birds represents a loss of biodiversity and we know that the loss of biodiversity is in fact public health issue. The death of all these beautiful birds in my mind represents a massive public health issue. The opportunities that I see for my profession is that there is an increased awareness that we must be in the business. We, in my profession, must be in the business of supporting public health. Each and every project offers opportunity to get this right. To support public health in this case, by restoring biodiversity and we could do that one building at a time.

In my mind, buildings need to become eco positive, not just net zero but eco positive, essentially micro habitats. They must become valuable members of the community, of that particular place where they find themselves in. When I say community, I mean not just a human community, but the community of all of the urban residents, and that would include the many birds that are trying to make a living in our cities. Birds, we know, essentially experience buildings as cliff formations or similar to cliff formations. They hunt from them, they try to nest on them, they try to ... they search for food in our gutters, gutters of our buildings and under our eaves and so forth and they tries to raise their families there.

They often arrive in our cities depleted after long migration. We just saw the migration routes that they have to travel, so they're malnourished, they're tired and they encounter these food deserts of our steel and glass cities and all the many perils that associate with that. Personally, I feel that buildings have to move much closer to nature. They have to be entirely vegetated as the building here on the half of that slide, to me, is where we need to move as a profession to be relevant in this time that we live in today, so that buildings can make positive contributions to the local ecology, so that ecology and biodiversity become part of the building design from the get go. That's, I think, what I see as the opportunities that we have right now. We're building nature rather than just buildings.

Those buildings also then become much more resilient in terms of extreme weather. They're able to cool themselves. They're able to mitigate urban heat around them much better and to support biodiversity. These fully, what I call habitat buildings, these fully-vegetated habitat buildings, sometimes they're called vertical forest buildings or vertical blooming garden buildings, they're essentially wrapped in these leafy envelopes. I call them eco tonal envelopes. Eco tones in nature are areas of transition between ecological communities, especially biodiverse edge conditions and the envelopes of our buildings are edge conditions currently very hard and unforgiving. We have to realign ourselves with our innate biology and our biology essentially is identical to the biology of birds. We're soft bodies and we're trying to make a living in these hard edged environments, and so none of us do very well with this. We have to soften the edges of our buildings. It's those hard edges that kill. In my opinion, buildings that kill birds are not sustainable buildings.

Scott Wing:
Yeah. Thank you. Maybe we could turn for a bit here to the, oh gosh, I can't resist this, maybe going into the guts of the project a little bit. Andrew, if you could tell us what you actually do when you do this project. How does it work?

Andrew S. Yang:
Right. Thanks Scott. I'm really looking forward by the way to the rest of the conversation with everything that Chris and Helena just said, we don't want to neglect that. Actually, this image here we have is some of the birds that I looked at the Smithsonian when I was invited down for part of this project. While the origination of this project was and continues to be ongoing at the Field Museum, it was really wonderful through this exhibition to have a chance to work with the folks down in the bird collections in DC and look at some of these birds and with the help of the staff there also uncover and dissect. A bird, in this case, they're often collected, sometimes also by volunteers who find them, might be frozen and then it's de-thawed and then the bird is dissected.

I think the next slide might show, sorry, I had this image of, but that's like the guts and all the glory of what might come out of a couple of different birds. I have this as one of the images in the exhibition, just because I think it's very captivating. Within there, you can find, in this case, it looks like a heart. It's actually the stomach, I think in this case, of a mourning dove. It turns out that if you open the stomach up with some scissors, in fact, often there are some seeds in this case, actually, a large abundance of seeds, this bird, I think, must have had a snack quite likely at even a bird feeder right before and unfortunately, met its demise. Many cases, the bird's stomachs are empty or there's just stones. That's part of the maybe there. I sample hundreds of birds in the process of collecting seeds, but over time can build this archive of seeds. In this case, every box or two does represent like one individual bird of a given species. It's accession number into the Field or the Smithsonian's collection actually is notated with every box.

Every box represents a bird of many species that have struck buildings in the cities and from which I've been able to gather seeds again. Then the question becomes, then what do you do with those? Well, one way you can certainly put them in geometric and interesting kinds of visualizations. These are the seeds found in just one stomach of one bird. I think, in this case, it was a Robin and two Thrushes, swings and thrushes on the other side. You see a combination, in some cases, of both stones and seeds. This is a 19th-century French style display.

But another thing you could do then is really think about, with this bird, how do we actuate both the loss, the potential and the complexity of the ecosystem? Because, of course, it isn't just, as Helena was mentioning, the bird that's lost, it's part of the landscape as well. These seeds are the future plants that are being and distributed through the landscape. On the next slide, you see that kind of the gesture and the move here is to, what I do is I hand throw ceramic pots, will throw them, and then these stoneware pots I make and glazes that mimic very abstractly and expressively, the feathering pattern of that particular species of bird, and then grow the seeds just from one individual bird in them.

Here on the left, we have a white-throated, oh, if we go back a slide, we have a white-throated Sparrow. We have a Canada goose there on the right. Then the next slide shows a Cedar waxwing on the left and then a Swainson's Thrush there on the right. Those are all individual instances of those plants that grew out from individual birds of those species. As Helen mentioned, they are both a sense of memorial to that bird and it's a way to visualize, again, this aspect of ecosystem that otherwise remains invisible to us, and so bringing life and visualization to them. There you can see, trace that through the ecosystem of the diagram. Sometimes they call this an ecology of interruptions, because at every different stage, there are moments where the volunteers reroute what would've happened to those birds. They've probably would've been eaten by rats or coyotes or other creatures in the city.

Then, of course, they're taken to the museums in which case they're skeletonized or their skins become part of the collection. But then I rescue the guts through the trash and then I either re-plant them as these Gardens of Maybe. Then sometimes it shows in the diagram, I actually clean the seeds and put them back into bird feeders mixed with commercial bird seeds, so that maybe those seeds can continue their journey of maybe in another kind of way.

Scott Wing:
Thanks. Chris, what Andrew was just saying makes me wonder, how often do we get requests from artists who want to look at the collections? In a typical pre-pandemic year or month or period of time of your choosing, how many people come to visit to look for scientific purposes? How many artists' requests would you get?

Chris Milensky:
It's actually, it's fairly rare, but it's not new. I was thinking about this the other day. Some of our oldest specimens are from John James Audubon. Those specimens, of course, were used as part of the early works for just drawing birds and then there was the whole period of field guides, where people were using specimens to draw birds for field guides, and then, it has continued to move on from there. We don't get a whole lot of requests, but there is a Smithsonian program called SARF, Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowships. We're starting to get more and more people come in through the SARF program. In terms of scientific requests to art, it's probably a hundred to one. We get quite a few scientists coming in. But no, we're always happy to see new uses of collections. Even in science, bird guts are becoming all the rage right now in science.

Scott Wing:
Uh-huh (affirmative).

Chris Milensky:
A lot of people studying microbiomes of guts and also doing stomach content analysis using metabarcoding techniques and that thing.

Scott Wing:
When I wander through the bird range and all these, there seems like it's pretty busy up there. I think a lot of people come in to use those collections. Are there ... Let's see. Andrew, part of The Flying Gardens of Maybe is investigating which species of seeds are getting taken out of circulations when the birds that carry them collide with buildings, so you've extracted and planted those seeds and are monitoring what's going on. What have you seen there?

Andrew S. Yang:
Yeah. Well, it's interesting. I want to be full disclosure here. I do have a background in ecology and evolutionary biology, and I mainly worked on insects. To the extent, I know not that much relatively speaking about birds, I know even less about plants from at least a specialist point of view. In seeing this, I do see plants that in these pots that you would expect from commercial bird seed. But I also see interesting strange grasses. I see, I think, some cases, pepper plant here and there. But generally speaking, I will say in a strange way, I've kept a certain willful ignorance into diving into what these plants are and looking more deeply into what I think is a great research project for someone to take up, which is what are these plants exactly and what do they represent in terms of the loss to or alteration of the botanical landscape, because this is certainly the key way that plants, which we often think of as immobile are making their ways across the landscape in all kinds of different ways.

You say that, when I was doing this in the Bird Lab and the Field Museum started to grow of these things up, a lot of people there started taking interest like, "Oh, what are these plants actually?" I was like, "I'd love to collaborate with any of you to do that." I actually haven't taken it to that step and part of it is just busyness, but another part of it is actually principle, in the sense that I would want someone to maybe bring in a collaborator to pose, to seek out the answers to that question. The artwork itself isn't seeking to actually answer questions as much as pose the question. Then the next step then is for an audience or a participant or someone else to try to seek those other questions or answer them. There's both a practical and a philosophical aspect to the way in which I engage the project and what its limits are.

Scott Wing:
Maybe there's a botanist out there tonight who might be interested in finding out some of these things, what they are.

Andrew S. Yang:
Yeah.

Scott Wing:
Have there been any surprises in our understanding of bird migration patterns through birds that are recovered in these programs of picking them up after collisions?

Chris Milensky:
Well, the patterns, we've kind of known for a long time that birds migrate at different times a year. You have certain species that migrate early and some species that migrate later. This is a way to sort of ... but most of that migration happens at night, and so this allows you to visualize this is what was moving through at night at this particular time or this particular day. But one thing that struck me, I think we've been gathering birds that hit buildings for over 20 years and something that first struck me, one of the first cases I saw was that, it was actually at an airport, it was the radio tower at an airport

There were people occupying the tower and then they started hearing these bumps on the glass and they went outside and, and all these birds had hit the glass because they had all their lights on, of course, in the tower. It was this incredible mixed species flock of birds. I had never appreciated that some of these small little passerines like you see in the picture here, were actually migrating together at night in these mixed species flux. That was something that I noticed. It was fly catchers and warblers and all sorts of different birds that were all migrating together, so that was new for me.

Scott Wing:
Huh. That's fascinating. Helena, what about your field? What are you learning about where, under what conditions birds tend to collide with buildings? I'm sure there are people in the audience thinking about what they can do.

Helena van Vliet:
Yes. You mentioned, Chris mentioned migration, bird migration. My understanding is that most of it, I think you just mentioned that too, most of it happens at night, some during the day. Yes, reflective glass during the day and brightly lit buildings at night are most to blame for what appears to be 1 billion deaths of songbirds per year just in North America alone. This is a horrifying statistic that our buildings kill that many birds just in North America alone, so we cannot afford this. Reflective glass, mirror glass even more so is largely invisible to birds, and we showed an image of one of those situations. Corner glass, fly through illusions, a corner glass, a favorite of many architects, represents fly through illusions. Glass railings, another favorite of many architects, deadly, especially if they lead to planted roofs. Glass atria that are filled with trees and illuminated on top of that. Glass that reflects exterior trees where the bird cannot tell, which is the tree and which is the glass. Glass bus shelters, all these are lethal traps.

The vertical forest buildings that I mentioned earlier, they invite birds onto the buildings, onto the vegetation. The vegetation is what they're looking for. The vegetation is close enough to the building that it prevents impact issues. We understand the issues really well, and we can make effective interventions even on buildings with large glass expenses. There are a lot of products available, I actually provided Amanda with a resource list that I think is available to listeners, of variety of products, bird-safe glass, suggestions from the Audubon Society and so forth. The options range from, most of it circles around something called visual noise. It is about etched or fritted glass, non-reflective channel glass, digitally-printed semi-transparent images. I should mention that bird decals do not work. Some of it has to do with ultraviolet materials.

A newest study suggested that red glass birds tend to avoid red glass, but the consensus seems to be that patterns that follow the 2x4 inch rule that you see here, and a visible frit offers the greatest possibilities for avoidance. The New York City Jacob Javits Convention Center, for example, was completely retrofitted with bird-safe glass of this kind. It was a major bird killer, it's right on the water, and bird collisions have been reduced by 95% on that building. Also, by the way, fritted glass is very energy efficient. It actually helps to cut cooling costs in the buildings. There's also, I should mention elite pilot credit available for bird-smart glass. Unfortunately, it's not a requirement yet, but many cities have put bird-safe ordinances in place. New York city just did so and it's been in effect since January of this year.

Keith Russell from Audubon in Philadelphia told me once a few years ago that a great many bird collisions happen in residential buildings like you and my house, a so leaving some simple things we can do leaving screens in our windows year round is very effective. Making sure that the bird feeders are either directly on the glass or no more than 18 inches away from the glass. And as far as light. Yeah, that's a huge problem because birds become mesmerized by the light. They're highly attracted to it. They get blinded by it. Lasers and strobe lights are particularly lethal. And so again, a vegetated eco tonal envelope of a building really softens that glare and the lure of the light. There are I in on the resource, she, I provided also some links to bird safe lighting guidelines that the Audubon society and the dark sky society recommends.

Bird-safe lighting must avoid dusk to dawn lighting. We should never have dusk to dawn lighting. We should have motion detectors instead and light should always be full-shielded, so they only shine down, not to the sides and never up. That's very important. In general, we tend to over light our environment at night, so keeping the lights low, the LED level is below 2,700 Kelvin, 2,500 Kelvin, which is also good for us because our circadian health suffers from too much light, and so does the circadian health of birds. We know that birds in cities are stressed and sleep-deprived just like we are and make poor decisions because of that as well.

Scott Wing:
Great. Thanks. Let's see. Maybe we could, I'd like to hit this idea of stewardship of habitats quickly before we go to the audience questions. We know that humans are tied into bird habitats. In this system, how can we be more active stewards of the habitats that support birds and other forms of life? How does that stewardship or how would it benefit us in return? Can you comment on that Helena? Then maybe we'll move from there to some of the audience questions.

Helena van Vliet:
Yeah. The clash, which literally kills these beautiful birds feels to me almost like a clash between nature and culture, and I thought about this a lot. Since we cannot redefine nature, I feel we must redefine culture. If evolution is any guide, culture must be in the service of survival and neither health nor survival for us is a reality without biodiversity. Biodiversity loss is a public health issue. In the context we're discussing here and the habitat buildings, the vegetated buildings that I mentioned, we know that they provide tremendous health benefits to us. Biodiversity, the experience of biodiversity has tremendous health benefits for us. It lowers our blood pressure. It actually strengthens our immune response. It reduces inflammation. This up close experience of birds and butterflies and pollinators is extremely beneficial for us, for our mental health as well.

Some of those buildings that have been in operation now, like the Bosco Verticale towers for six, seven years, it's been reported that they really strengthened the sense of community and that stewardship of those buildings has become a very big part of the building of community associated with those buildings.

There's also the powerful multi-sensory experience that they provide. The fact that they cool the environment is very, very important for the climate issues that we face. They sequester carbon, another very important thing that we need to be thinking about. They also cool interior building temperatures, which means we don't need the air conditioning as much. The soft fascination that nature provides resets our cognition. There's a lot of research on that and the fact that small experiences of all, as we experience in nature, reduce inflammation in our body, more so than any other emotion.

There are a lot of health benefits associated with supporting biodiversity. In addition to that, the mitigation of heat that these buildings offer us the air purification, the absorption of storm water, the growing of fresh air, the sequestering of carbon, so there's many, many aspects of these buildings that are incredibly beneficial to us, as well as to the beautiful birds that we're talking about today.

Scott Wing:
Thanks, thanks. I have a question for Andrew from Nancy about when and how your interest in come combining art and science developed. You have an interesting background with PhD in Biology.

Andrew S. Yang:
Yeah. Thanks for that question. The long and short of it, I think, just actually has to do fundamentally with my childhood. I was very lucky to have grown up on a several acre, small farm in rural Massachusetts. But my father and my mother are both scientists actually, and I spent so much time outdoors. I think I never really understood these questions of art or science as being separate to me. I think it was all to me a question of aesthetics and experience and engagement. Only until you get to high school and college do you start getting disciplined with these disciplines. I'll just quickly say something that may or may not be interesting, but I tried in college to be both an art and a science major, dual degree, and it turned out that the studios and the labs always conflicted in time slot, so I had to choose one or the other.

I think that's both just a small anecdote, but I think it's actually a metaphor more broadly for the way, I think, we also think very siloed and disciplinary. A lot of my work as an educator at the Art Institute of Chicago too, is about trying to think much more synthetically and in integrated matter to bring back really important interconnections between these different kinds of ways of knowing.

Scott Wing:
That's really interesting, and it's a that the studio and the lab's overlap in time. What a statement that makes. Chris, you have a pretty enviable job, you must often get that, you have the coolest job there is comment from people. Do you have a favorite part of the collection? People want to know. You don't have to say though. Are you working on anything that you'd like to talk about now?

Chris Milensky:
Yeah. No, I have heard that before. I have a few friends who think I have the coolest job in the world, but yeah. We are actually still semi-shut down because of COVID, and so we're not able to go out and do field work. Field Work is one of the fun parts in my job. We've got all sorts of different projects going on. We're doing a lot, as I mentioned before, bird guts are exciting right now, so we're actually doing a lot of microbiome projects. We're looking at bird bacteria in bird stomachs and guts.

Speaker 3:
That's new.

Chris Milensky:
That's something that is a novel research concept in Ornithology, which is why, as Andrew mentioned, he was pulling things out the trash can, because people just weren't interested in that before, but that's becoming something that's more interesting. We're doing some microbiome work and we do a lot with skeletons. We have the best skeleton collection in the world, so this is bird bones. We frequently have people coming to the collection or not coming now, but asking me to take photographs of bones so that they can use in their research projects. We're doing a lot of work with paleontologists, who are looking at fossil birds and trying to describe fossil birds based on modern bird, using modern bird bones as a reference. There's lots of interesting things going on.

Scott Wing:
Yeah, that's exciting. Very exciting. I see we have a question. Let's see, who's this from? Paula was wondering, asking Helena, can you just give a little more detail on what is the 2x4 rule?

Helena van Vliet:
Oh yes. There was an image, I don't know, Amanda, if you can bring it back up. Yeah. A bird will not fly through a certain size opening, and that is a 2x4 inch opening. The frit-dot patterns obey this 2x, yes. You see it here on the left, on my left, I don't know. I think it's on the left. A bird a bird will not fly through a dot pattern that is 2x4 inches, whether the dots are 2x4 inches apart or whatever the fritting pattern is, and that's the 2x4 inch rule.

Scott Wing:
Yeah. Could I jump in with another detailed question about that? About the mechanisms? I see someone asked about plantings? I think this was called wooden plantings on the building exterior actually attract birds because they might have food in them and thus, create more bird strikes. If you could just quickly say, what is it about the plantings that actually has the opposite effect?

Helena van Vliet:
Yeah, I want to attract birds. The birds are hungry, they need food in cities. Our cities are food deserts for birds. The key thing appears to be the distance of the plants to the building. If the plants are right on the building or very close to the building wall, the bird in a sense, will go for the vegetation because that's what it's looking for and then it will not have any speed at all to fly into glass, and of course, we would want to use bird-safe glass in addition to that. It would be a belt-and-suspenders kind of approach. We need to provide ... the buildings, we need to cool our cities and we need to feed birds, so a vegetated building do both of that at the same time. I also want to mention before I forget, there is an act before Congress, the Federal Bird Safe Buildings Act 2021. If you want to contact your Congress people that we need to support and get that passed.

Scott Wing:
Then maybe one more quick one on the practicalities of what individuals can do. People are saying, "Well, I have a nice picture window. What do I do to keep the birds from hitting it?"

Helena van Vliet:
Yeah, I had in the research page that I've provided, there are some do-it-yourself options as well. Sometimes it's as simple as strings that follow that 2x4 rule or the 4-inch apart vertical strings. There are also films that you can apply, there are these dot patterns, there are these beautiful fractal patterns, they're very subtle, that's why I showed these here. They're quite beautiful and they're quite subtle. You can close curtains or if you have screens on the outside, that really takes care of the problem. I used to take my screens out in the winter and I learned not to do that anymore. Leaving them in is a great solution.

Scott Wing:
At our house, we've hung the strings up and that has really helped a lot.

Helena van Vliet:
Yes, right, yeah.

Scott Wing:
Really close together.

Helena van Vliet:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Scott Wing:
Andrew, people are ... I'm hearing the echoes of our conversation with Ellie Irons. People want to know about native versus introduce seeds and whether there's a way to tell apart as you're picking through. But I think that this is what you were saying. You need the botanist collaborator for that, right?

Andrew S. Yang:
Yeah, and maybe you actually could answer that as well. I typed an answer to them saying I certainly haven't gone to that level yet. But I also understand that seed morphology can be quite tricky to make those species level IDs. I imagine for key invasives, maybe there are diagnostic morphology, I don't know. It isn't a place I've gone with the project yet.

Scott Wing:
Yeah. Yeah. There are keys, there are keys. There are always keys.

Andrew S. Yang:
There is always a key for everything.

Scott Wing:
There's always a key for everything. Kara would like to ask a question of Chris and Andrew. How do you foster, how do we foster a better relationship with between museums and artists, and maybe a closer bond between art and science? That's something that you guys might want to comment on, I might want to follow up with my own comment.

Andrew S. Yang:
I'll jump in to say, I think one thing is that speaking from both sides is having a background in science and art. I think one thing that scientists and artists really have in common is their really untethered curiosity about things. That was of real value in my ability to even engage this project. At the Bird Lab at the Field Museum, Dave Willard and Ben Marx, but especially David Willard, who's the emeritus bird collections manager, when I said, "Hey, what are you doing with those guts? Could I have them?" He was like, "Sure!" He not only said you could have them, he would extract the stomachs for me, identify that species of bird and tag it and put it in a freezer, so I could collect the seeds later.

I just want to acknowledge David Willard as important collaborator in this whole project, just as all of the bird collision monitors are as well. David's work on bird strikes on the McCormick building in Chicago has been really important as well as other work, so I encourage everyone to please look at the longstanding work that David Willard's been doing, because he's been collecting those birds as data sets and I've just been scrounging the guts as it were. I think that's just willingness and openness. I know certainly it's hard to let one's self, let other people into your research space, into your agendas and things, and it's difficult because we all live really busy lives and we've got work to do, and so the generosity of people like Chris and like David and others I've met at museums has been really important.

We're actually collaborators in that. It's been interesting to see how this project and other ones that I've done with natural history museums and other topics have really drawn people to those museums and let them, have them see those museums as institutions differently. They don't see them just as archives or they're libraries of dead stuff, they're permeable. Things go in, volunteers bring things in, things come out. There's something that's really dynamic about the natural history museum as a nexus of culture, and so I think this project's in part to highlight that participatory ecology of things that the museum is a part of.

Scott Wing:
The human ecosystem. Chris, do you have any thoughts on that? Encouragement?

Chris Milensky:
Yeah. It is a little bit tough for us because our primary focus is research. We also have to be careful about commercial use of the collections, which is something that we don't actually allow at the Smithsonian, so we just have to be ... we have to be a little bit careful about who gets to come in, and so we have to vet that a little bit. As the collection manager, I have to be careful about the specimens themselves. If people are wanting to bring in paint or something to do to create art in the collections, I have to be careful about that. We just have to all remember to be a little bit open-minded about things and work together on this thing. We have gotten better at that over the years, especially with the, as I mentioned, the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship program that has opened up a lot of doors.

Scott Wing:
Yeah. I think there's a human, an ecosystem as we were saying earlier, an ecosystem of human knowledge and part of re-imagining our relationship with nature is learning how to maybe engineer how we think about things and that scientists are not, with our focus on understanding how the natural world works may not always be thinking that, if we actually want to apply that knowledge, we also have to figure out how the interior spaces of the human world works and how ... Artists are always experimenting with human emotion or human reaction to images. Yeah.

Helena van Vliet:
If I could just quickly say, the same thing is also true for my profession that we need to reach across into other disciplines and we're designing for biological organisms that would be humans and birds. For architects to develop an interesting knowledge of biology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience and so forth is extremely important.

Scott Wing:
Thanks very much. I think we are getting pretty close to the end of the program. I don't know whether there were any last thoughts. Andrew, I think I see there's a question hanging about changes or benefits of decision making that's guided by the understanding that we're participants in the ecological system. That's a big question for [crosstalk 00:57:01],

Andrew S. Yang:
Yeah. I think that's a great question. I'll just say in closing, certainly we think of things like Rachel Carson understanding things like DGT, changing the whole way that we approach. That made a big difference, of course, the life of birds in the US, but I think all of the things that Helena just talked about today are real clear manifestations and practical ones of the knowledge that we've gained and the knowledge and understanding we've gained through science that allows us to do and make interventions through architecture, otherwise, that aren't just solving the immediate problem of hurting birds, but actually contributing positively to our coexistence, the way that we actually add real value and care to each other, as opposed to just staying out of each other's way. I think all of the work that Helena talked about is really a wonderful example of that very thing lessons learned.

Scott Wing:
Well, thanks very much. I think we are just coming up to the top of the hour. I wanted to say thanks to all of you. Also, to remember to say that the next featured artist is Bethany Taylor. I hope everyone can join me in thanking Andrew Yang and Chris Milensky and Helena van Vliet. I'm also supposed to remember to tell you to find a link to a questionnaire in the Q&A box as well as more information. We hope you'll take a moment to respond and we're very interested in your input. Thanks again and hope to see you next time.

Helena van Vliet:
Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Andrew S. Yang:
Thanks so much.

Helena van Vliet:
Buh-bye.

Scott Wing:
Buh-bye.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar with artist Andrew S. Yang aired December 8, 2021, as part of a series of conversations with artists featured in the exhibit Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans. Watch a recording in the player above.

Description

When birds and buildings collide, artist Andrew S. Yang reimagines what is lost and what could be. His project "Flying Gardens of Maybe" features makeshift gardens planted with seeds from the bellies of birds collected from building strikes. In this video, Yang, Helena van Vliet (biophilic architect, researcher, and educator) and Chris Milensky (Collections Manager for the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History) have a conversation about this clash between nature and culture, how urban planning can help protect migratory birds and future generations of plants, and the potential to inspire human action. Scott Wing, paleobotanist and co-curator of the Unsettled Nature exhibition, moderates.

Host: Amanda Sciandra, a public programs coordinator at the National Museum of Natural History.

Unsettled Nature: Artist Event Series

What is "natural" in a world where the human imprint is everywhere? In the new exhibition Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans at the National Museum of Natural History, contemporary artists challenge viewers to think about the changes we make to our planet. Join us for a series of conversations with them on the power of art to illuminate our relationship with the natural world. September 2021 – March 2022

 

Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Topics
Life Science
Exhibit
Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans