I recently had a chance to chat with some folks from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about their beautiful new showpiece, the Wall of Birds mural entitled “From So Simple a Beginning.” To prepare, I spent time exploring the mural in depth using the interactive online features. View the mural online by clicking here, or plan a visit to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Visitor Center to see it in person.
The colors catch your eye first, and then the large birds. Ostrich, pelican, albatross… these familiar fliers jump out at you, drawing you in. Then you realize it’s a map, and your eye is drawn to your own home, to see what you’ll find there; Florida is covered with an osprey so lifelike it’s hard to distinguish from the one currently diving for fish in the lake outside my window. Click on the osprey and a window pops up, the brief vivid text painting a picture – “Out of the sky, fast and precise, comes an Osprey.”
Your eyes drift around the map, and you continue to click. “Winter’s dormancy wraps the trees and most animals in its annual embrace, but not the rambunctious Northern Cardinal.” You play the call of the Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher, and check the always up-to-date map to see where you might find one. You wander west, past the familiar Barn Owl and not-quite-so-familiar Phainopepla, and suddenly, just off the California coast, you find an enormous creature that isn’t familiar at all.
It’s sketched in ghostly grey, with wings that stretch from the Aleutian Islands to the coast of Mexico. A quick click, and you learn that you’re looking at Pelagornis, the largest bird ever to soar in the skies above us. That was 25 million years ago, and Pelagornis has long since vanished. And now you realize that the map is full of these shadowy creatures from the past, extinct birds and their prehistoric ancestors. You continue to explore, lost in the world of birds past and present, all without leaving the comfort of your chair, enthralled and amazed.
That’s just how Mya Thompson, Creative Director for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Academy, wants it to be. “The bird mural is a comprehensive visual of evolutionary history and bird diversity,” she says, “We know most people will never get to visit it in person, though, so we wanted to create a fully immersive online experience.”
Titled “From So Simple a Beginning,” the 3,000 square foot birds mural at the Cornell Lab’s Visitor Center in upstate New York includes a single life-sized representative of each of the 243 bird families in vivid color. It also includes extinct birds like the Elephant Bird and ancestors from the time of the dinosaurs, executed in grey-scale. Artist Jane Kim and her team from Ink Dwell Studios designed and painted the 270 species in about a year, and the detail of each bird is exacting. Up close, you can see individual feathers, outstretched talons, the slight curve of a beak.
It was important to Thompson and her team that those details not be lost on the wider audience. So when they set out to put the birds mural online, they didn’t just use a few pictures – they used more than 750, carefully coordinated and photographed at high quality, using lifts to reach high places and crunching down into corners to get other shots. The photos were painstakingly stitched together – mostly by hand, as the software turned out to be not quite up to the job.
The team then turned to an unlikely place for inspiration – Google maps. They wanted users to be able to zoom in to appreciate those amazing levels of detail, so the image was broken into more than 50,000 “tiles”, allowing for an impressive 9 levels of zoom. Now visitors from thousands of miles away could see the paintings just as closely as if they were standing in the actual hall in front of the birds mural.
But Thompson wanted bird-lovers to get even more from the experience. So while photographers and web designers were working on getting the mural itself online, she had undergraduate Lucia You working to assemble information about each species featured. You was tasked with writing a brief but impactful description, as well as working with the Macaulay Library to choose a representative audio file of a song or call for each bird. Add in dynamically updated maps pulled from eBird showing the most recent sightings, and users get the interactive, immersive experience Thompson and her team worked so hard to achieve.
Look at the birds mural as a whole, and it’s hard to imagine the scale. But focus on the doors at the bottom right, and click on the Albatross next to them. It has a wingspan of up to 12 feet and is painted here life-size, so those doors must be about 12 feet high. Now zoom out and use that for perspective, and you can see just how massive an undertaking the Wall of Birds mural project has been. Zoom in, though, and the birds become real, personal, present. They inspire you to admire, to learn, to protect. A whole world awaits your exploration. Where will this simple beginning take you?