NEW YORK CITY.- The New-York Historical Society presents Audubon's Aviary: Portraits of Endangered Species, on view through March 16 and highlights birds that once flourished in American landscapes and soared in our nation's skies but are now either declining, threatened with extinction, or sadly gone forever. It also features success stories of birds that have rebounded or have been removed from the Endangered Species List. Due to their sensitivity to light, each original Audubon watercolor can be exhibited for only a brief period every 10 years. After closing in March, this year's flock will migrate off to the safety of the N-YHS's storage for at least ten years; unfortunately, by the time these watercolors reappear, species they have preserved on paper may have disappeared entirely.
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) - The name "peregrine" means wanderer, and the Peregrine Falcon has one of the longest migrations of any North American bird. Tundra-nesting, they winter in South America, and may move 15,000 miles in a year. People have trained falcons for hunting for over a thousand years, and the Peregrine Falcon was always one of the most prized. Powerful and fast-flying (up to 69 miles per hour), the Peregrine Falcon hunts medium-sized birds, dropping down on them in a spectacular stoop (at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour). Virtually exterminated from eastern North America due to DDT in the mid-twentieth century, it was one of the first birds placed on the U.S. Rare and Endangered Species List. Extensive efforts were made to reestablish birds in the east, beginning at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 1970, which eventually developed the Peregrine Fund. The species recovered enough to be removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999 and restoration efforts have made it a regular, if still uncommon sight in many large cities. It remains a qualified success story.
Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) - Due to human intervention, Eastern Bluebirds are billed temporarily as a success story. In Audubon's time, they were more numerous, especially in the northern states. Their population decline is due to many factors, including the introduction from Europe of the House Sparrow in 1851 and of the Starling in 1890. Each of these competes with the less aggressive bluebird for nesting sites. Chemical spraying of trees has also taken its toll, as has severe weather. But the introduction of bluebird boxesa custom practiced even in Audubon's dayis helping to stabilize the Eastern Bluebird. Although populations declined further in the 1960s and 1970s, they rose thereafter due to the increased popularity of nest box campaigns. Still vulnerable, it is encouraging that Eastern Bluebirds typically have more than one successful brood annually. The male does a nest demonstration display to attract the female. He brings nest material to the hole, goes in and out, and waves his wings. That dance in several acts is his contribution to nest building; only the female builds the nest and incubates the eggs. The Eastern Bluebird's song is a warbling whistle: Tu-wheet-turdu.
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) - Back from the brink, the Bald Eagle, the symbolic bird of the nation, was once threatened with extinction in the lower 48 states. Protection came in 1940 under what was later named the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which curbed illegal hunting of eagles for their feathers. Nonetheless, populations plunged as they fell victim to DDT, which was widely used after World War II. In a great victory in October 2007, the bird was officially removed from the Endangered Species List to become a poster child for wildlife conservation. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the nation's symbol has recovered from 417 nesting pairs in 1963 to 9,789 breeding pairs today.
The Bald Eagle is not actually bald; its name derives from the word "piebald," meaning spotted or patchy. With its dark brown body and white head and tail, piebald is an apt description for this raptor. Audubon executed at least four watercolors of the Bald Eagle; this example represents an immature bird, a fact which he correctly noted although he named it the "White-headed Eagle." The Bald Eagle does not acquire either its white head and tail or its yellow irises and beak until it is three or four years old.
Barn Owl (Tyto alba) - As he wrote in the Ornithological Biography, this pair of owls was given to Audubon "by my friend Richard Harlan, D.C., of Philadelphia. They . . . were fine adult birds in excellent plumage. I have placed a ground squirrel [chipmunk] under the feet of one of them, as being an animal on which the species is likely to feed." The Barn Owl is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, found on all continents except Antarctica and on many oceanic islands as well. Although it is common, its populations in the American Midwest and East dropped dramatically between 1970 and 2000, causing it to be listed as "Endangered" in some states. Nest box programs have helped increase populations in some areas. The bird's call is a drawn-out, hissing scream.
Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) - One of America's top ten most endangered birds, according to the Audubon Society, the Piping Plover has been listed since 1986 by both the U.S. and Canadian governments as "Endangered" and considered in extreme peril. Newly hatched chicks look like small sand-colored balls of cotton. Useful for evading predators, the camouflage also makes the nests vulnerable to being crushed by human feet, pets, and vehicles, and predators are everywhere. Biologists have used twine to rope off habitats and to close parts of a beach until the plover chicks grow strong. Plover development is fast; it takes about three weeks for the chicks to reach adult size. BirdLife International estimates that the population in all three of the major breeding areas is only about 6,100 (the Audubon Society estimates a population of 6,410). However alarming, this represents an increase of more than 9 percent from the 1991 census numbers, with the improvement attributable to intensive programs, like that of Long Island's Coastal Species Recovery Program.
American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) - The American Oystercatcher, an inhabitant of the saltwater marsh islands of New York City's Jamaica Bay, is on the Audubon Society's 2007 WatchList in the yellow category (population now estimated at 72,000). Their habitat is shrinking at an alarming rate and could disappear within five years, according to the New York Times. A report issued by the Jamaica Bay Watershed Advisory Committee and the National Park Service, found that about 33 acres of tidal wetlands are lost annually, nearly twice the 18-acre loss found in a previous study (2001). The current awareness may be the last chance to save Jamaica Bay. Scientists suspect that one reason for the loss is nitrogen pollution from the treated outflow of bay's four city sewage plants.
Whooping Crane (Grus americana) - Standing at almost five feet, the Whooping Crane is the tallest North American bird. Audubon probably drew this specimen in 1821 in New Orleans and later added the baby alligators and the background in oil. The following year he witnessed nine of these birds killing a band of young alligators. Audubon exploited the bird's reputation as a voracious eater, bending down to eat and to fit onto the paper.