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An Ambitious Mural Puts All 243 Bird Families Onto an Enormous Map of the World

By Hugh Powell

Update: See the main page for this mural here

It takes a big painting to do justice to the phenomenal history and diversity of birds. To create a tribute to the 375-million-year evolutionary history of birds and to the more than 10,000 bird species alive now, the Cornell Lab and Ink Dwell studio combined efforts on a mural project 40 feet high and 3,000 square feet in size. It covers one entire wall of our visitor center.

The mural’s title, “From So Simple a Beginning,” tips its hat to Charles Darwin and a passage he used to sum up his view of evolution, in The Origin of Species:

            “There is grandeur in this view of life,
with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one;
and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity,

                from so simple a beginning,
                                             endless forms most beautiful

and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

                                                                                                      —Charles Darwin, 1859

One Planet, 243 Families, 375 Million Years

View the concept drawing the mural
Concept drawing for From So Simple a Beginning mural, scheduled to be completed in late 2015. Image via Ink Dwell.

“From So Simple a Beginning” provides a visual journey through the many epochs of birds’ evolution from fish to dinosaurs to the present day. The mural features one species from each of the world’s 243 extant bird families painted in bright color and vivid detail. To trace the evolutionary journey, the mural also depicts extinct birds and dinosaurs in monochrome. Everything is painted life size, from dainty songbirds to all 10 feet of a Wandering Albatross in flight, to an extinct Pelagornis with a 19-foot wingspan.

Painting began in 2014 and is scheduled to finish in late 2015, with the artists needing to complete one bird portrait per day on average to meet their goal. Here’s more about the project and its vision, from artist Jane Kim:

 More Than a Mural

In its marriage of art and science, of gorgeous birds painted in exacting detail, the mural invites viewers first to marvel at the diversity of birds and then to contemplate the evolutionary forces that brought them into being, spread them across the globe, and led to their dazzling variety of forms and colors.

To carry the mural’s message beyond those people who come to the Cornell Lab visitor center, we are building an interactive mural feature as part of our All About Bird Biology project. Viewers will be able to explore the mural through high-resolution images, learn the basics about each of the bird families of the world, and explore collections of some of the most impressive and outrageous birds in the world.

Be Part of the Project: Sponsor Your Favorite Bird

In mid-2015 there will be a special opportunity to become part of From So Simple a Beginning: an auction to support individual paintings on the wall. Imagine claiming your favorite bird, family of birds, or even dinosaur with a modest donation. Winning bidders will be acknowledged on the mural website or on the mural wall itself. As donations to the Cornell Lab, bids are valuable contributions to help further our work to interpret and conserve the world’s biodiversity. The auction will happen in Summer 2015—sign up here and we’ll send you an email when the auction begins. Or, if you choose, you can make a gift to the mural project now.

Progress on the mural is well under way—this slideshow depicts some of the stunning details of individual birds. Follow Ink Dwell studio on Facebook and Instagram for regular updates.

Images by Danza Chisholm-Sims/Ink Dwell.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library