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Exhibition and Book Tip

Urban Neighbors: Images of New York City Wildlife

 

Staff Report

NEW YORK, 15 October 2002 - New York has wildlife, and plenty of it. And that doesn’t mean the club scene. As the exhibition Urban Neighbors: Images of New York City Wildlife shows, the five boroughs harbor an abundance of wild living creatures. The New York Public Library’s collections have yielded a menagerie of striking images created by preeminent zoological artists illustrating the surprising variety of fauna in the city, and refuting the canard that the local wildlife consists only of pigeons, cockroaches, and rats. More than 220 items, dating from the mid-17th century to the present, are on view through 1 February 2003 in the Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

Urban Neighbors includes images of approximately 250 species, a highly selective cross section of New York City wildlife, represented in historic and contemporary illustrated books, photographs, hand-colored engravings and lithographs, maps, and original art, as well as the occasional cartoon or magazine cover. The exhibition is drawn primarily from the Library’s collections supplemented by select loans. Urban Neighbors is organized in eight sections, based primarily on habitat: city streets and backyards, parks and green spaces, shore and wetlands. Insects and "Unwelcome Neighbors" are dealt with in separate sections as are several of the city’s historical animal residents and occasional visitors.

Rock Dove (Columba livia) and Lion (Panthera leo).
Rock Dove (Columba livia) and Lion (Panthera leo).
Pigeon on New York Public Library Lion
Photograph by Ben Asen, December 2001. © Ben Asen
.Photo courtesy of The New York Public Library.

The opening section of the exhibition, "Historical Neighbors," focuses on once-abundant animals that played an important role in the early economy of New Amsterdam and later New York. The beaver, whose pelts founded many a fortune, including that of John Jacob Astor, has appeared on the seal of the city since the 17th century. In Urban Neighbors the beaver is depicted on both a bronze replica of the first seal of New Amsterdam that once adorned the old West Side Highway built in the 1930s by Robert Moses and on a ceramic plaque from the Astor Place subway station.

Shellfish, especially clams and oysters, were also of vital economic importance. The tasty Northern Quahog or hard-shelled clam, which is featured in a beautiful hand-colored lithograph from James Ellsworth DeKay’s Zoology of New York, or the New York Fauna … (1842 -- 44), played a vital role not just as a food item but as currency used by the Lenape Indians and American colonists. Although shellfish were at one time harvested in enormous quantities, heedless overfishing and increasing water pollution led to the demise of the local shellfish industry by the beginning of the 20th century. One of the most striking portraits of a historic neighbor, as well as a poignant example of the destruction of a species, is John James Audubon’s graceful depiction of the Passenger Pigeon. When Audubon painted it in 1824, it was one of the most numerous birds in the world. Yet by the end of the century, the Passenger Pigeon was gone, senselessly slaughtered by the millions. "Martha," the last of her species, died on 1 September 1914.


Mourning Doves, American Robins, Monarch Butterflies, and Eastern Gray Squirrels are just some of New York’s "Street and Backyard Neighbors." Peregrine Falcons, once locally extinct raptors that prey on pigeons and other small birds, were reintroduced in the 1970s and now often nest on skyscrapers and bridges. Two dramatic artworks illustrate these birds in their urban habitat. Peregrine Falcon in New York City, an illustration for a poster by Frank Ippolito, shows the majestic birds on the Art Deco Chrysler Building, and a photograph by Michael J. Feller captures Peregrines nesting on the MetLife Building.


Some of the ubiquitous species represented in this section are, like New York’s other bipedal denizens, scrappy immigrants from the Old World. European Starlings were introduced to New York in 1890 by a wealthy merchant with a literary bent, who wanted to enrich the local avifauna with birds mentioned by Shakespeare. House Sparrows were introduced in the mid-19th century in the hope that they would eat native pests. Common street pigeons, or Rock Doves, arouse passionate controversy between avowed pigeon-haters who consider them nothing but "rats with wings" and pigeon enthusiasts. Among the various depictions of pigeons on view in the exhibition is a photograph by Ben Asen of a classic specimen perched on the head of one of the stone lions that flank the entrance to the Library’s landmark building on Fifth Avenue.

"Shore and Wetlands Neighbors" is devoted to the waterfowl, shorebirds, amphibians, turtles, and shore crabs that inhabit New York City’s 578 miles of shoreline and its rivers, salt- and freshwater marshes, and lakes and streams. Among the images in this section is a hand-colored lithograph of a handsome, brown-plumed American Bittern, a large solitary member of the heron family. It was created in 1837 by Edward Lear, who is considered to be among the finest bird painters, although better known for his nonsense verse.

Bullfrog (Rana catesbiana)
Bullfrog (Rana catesbiana). Hand-colored etching by Mark Catesby
from his drawing. In: M. Catesby, The Natural History of Carolina,
Florida and the Bahama Islands
Vol. 2 of 2 (1771).
Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library
.Photo courtesy of The New York Public Library.


In the late 18th century, British-born naturalist and artist Mark Catesby published the earliest American natural history book illustrated with color plates. Largely self-taught as an artist and printmaker, Catesby not only collected and preserved specimens, created the drawings, and wrote the text, he also etched all the plates and hand-colored many of the prints. Two plates from Catesby’s landmark book are featured in this section, including a hand-colored etching of a male Bullfrog, whose deep-throated mating call can often be heard near the city’s ponds, lakes, and streams. A wonderful photograph by Don Riepe taken in August 2001 depicts Ospreys nesting on a platform erected for their use at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. The birds appear entirely unfazed by the jumbo jet taking off from JFK International Airport in the background.


Urban Neighbors: Images of New York City Wildlife is on view from 11 October 2002 through 1 February 2003 at The New York Public Library.

Book Tip: Robert Bateman: BIRDS
Foreward by Peter Matthiessen
176 pages
Pantheon Books, New York, 15 October 2002
ISBN: 0375421823
$40.00

Robert Bateman: Birds

The subject of several films and a bit of a publishing phenomenon (three books of his art having sold more than three quarters of a milllion copies) the distinguished Canadian wildlife painter Robert Bateman (b. 1930) traveled to Alaska, South Asia, Europe, Africa, Antarctica, the Caribbean, Florida and the North Pacific Coast painting birds indigenous to each region. The paintings are accompanied by Bateman's engaging and informative first-person narrative of his adventures such as watching a secretary bird in Africa attacking its dinner of snake, a spectacular bald eagle swooping down to its nest on Salt Spring Island, emperor penguins waddling up hills of ice during the Antarctic winter or a rather grand and dramatically rendered male peacock "treading cautiously past temple ruins in a banyan grove" in India.

Of equal interest are Bateman's occasional comments on the evolutionary and survival skills of birds or their signficance in world mythology: "And if we walked too close to the raven's nest, we could have have been pelted with rocks, since this bird is one of the few that has learned how to use tools. Scientists have theorized that ravens became crafty over the centuries as they learned how to steal bits of prey caught by large predators like wolves and bears. For the Haid, the raven is a wily trickster-transformer who created the world, while in Norse mythology, the ravens Hugin and Munin represented thought and memory".

For those who love birds, Robert Bateman's BIRDS provides an attractive combination of expert avian painting, natural history and an admirable commitment to ecology and conservation.

Joseph Romero

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