Station to Station

Birdlink is one part ecological public art, one part bird migration science.

By Zach Mortice 

More than 300 species of birds migrate through New York City along the Atlantic Flyway each year. The goal of the art installation and avian habitat Birdlink, by Anina Gerchick, Associate ASLA, is to get a fraction of them to linger in the city for a bit.

Birdlink is an assemblage of stair-step bamboo and gabion planters stacked almost a dozen feet high, and intended to offer food and habitats for birds and other pollinators in urban areas outside major wildlife hubs such as Central Park or Jamaica Bay on Long Island. If you look closely, you’ll see bird varieties that shift with the seasons, as tides of migratory birds arrive and depart in New York City.

Birdlink is meant to attract both migrating birds and year-round resident birds of New York City. Photo by Stephen A. Scheer.

There are two Birdlinks now, in Sara Roosevelt Park in Lower Manhattan and in East River State Park in Brooklyn.  But if constructed in sufficient number, they could form a chain of respite for birds in any metropolis. Though Gerchick is an artist, she earned an MLA from the City College of New York in 2015, and for her, landscape architecture is a way to merge public art with ecology.

Birdlink’s planters are filled with native perennials, selected for their berries and seeds. Photo by Anina Gerchick.

Birdlink is composed of a terraced bamboo structure, filled in with 19 utilitarian wire-mesh gabion baskets (of the sort that might be used to stabilize a riverbank or highway overpass) lined with black felt. These planters are filled with native perennials, selected for their berries and seeds. There’s winterberry, beach plum, milkweed, goldenrod, switchgrass, and several sedges. One species is planted per gabion basket to maintain readability of the plantings, and to show off different textures and patterns: shaggy grasses interspersed with splotches of floral color. “People notice the plants in a way that they don’t when they’re on the ground,” she says.

Birdlink, at Sara Roosevelt Park in Lower Manhattan. Photo by Stephen A. Scheer.

Species traveling along the Atlantic Flyway that might stop off at a Birdlink include red-headed woodpeckers, seaside sparrows, and eastern whip-poor-wills.  Long-distance travelers might be killdeer from Mexico and yellow warblers from Central and South America.

Gerchick is particularly elated to see these tropical birds pay a visit. “When you see them here, it’s a startling reminder that you’re on this big flyway, and we have migrations coming from the tropics to the tundra,” she says. “I can’t say that the yellow warbler from South America is necessarily going to show up and use it, but as long as there are bees and butterflies and crickets and so on, there’s definitely life happening there. It’s a habitat. It’s not a zoo.”

The Birdlink installation in Brooklyn’s East River State Park. Photo by Anina Gerchick.

Birdlink installations might seem like a kind but futile gesture in the face of the massive habitat loss and climate change that are devastating bird populations. But Gerchick sees it the opposite way. In an urban environment, demonstrating the relevance of bird and insect habitats is so easy it doesn’t matter how small the intervention is. Just by putting a potted plant on a sidewalk, you’ll attract bird and insect life, she says.

“It’s a very simple concept,” Gerchick says. “These small interventions in multiple networks really have power.”

Anina Gerchick installing a Birdlink sculpture. Photo by Stephen A. Scheer.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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