The remarkable natural history of birds, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The mural, titled From So Simple a Beginning, covers more than 2,700 square feet in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s visitor center.
Inspired by words from Darwin’s Origin of Species and completed in 2016 by artist Jane Kim, the mural reflects the evolutionary journey it paints—from long before dinosaurs to present-day birds.
"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, Origin of Species, 1859
The piece invites viewers 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.
Each bird family of the world is represented by one remarkable species, painted life-sized, in colorful detail within its home range.
To remind us of the deep evolutionary roots of modern-day birds, extinct species spill down the stairwell as they appear chronologically in the fossil record.
The timeline begins with ancient amphibious “fishapods,” moves through a diverse crowd of dinosaurs, and ends with a parade of progressively more bird-like creatures.
A careful look at the wing helps us understand how the feathers of modern birds support flight.
Arranged along the trailing edge of the wing are long stiff feathers whose interlocked structure create the surface area needed for liftoff. Smaller feathers on the front edge of the wing smooth airflow by covering the gaps where flight feathers attach to the bone.
The lightweight strength of flight feathers has allowed some birds, like the Long-tailed Jaeger of the High Arctic, to spend the majority of their time in the air.
Shown here in mid-flight, this jaeger can travel astonishing distances of more than 31,000 miles (50,000 km) per year, seldom coming within sight of land.
Other birds astonish with their impressive breeding plumage. The artist carefully realized the beauty of the male Wood Duck using at least a dozen different paints. But how does the bird create this lively palette?
The browns and blacks come from a pigment called melanin, while the reds and yellows are the result of carotenoid pigments gathered in the bird's diet.
The artist has also captured how, when the angle of the sun is just right, the Wood Duck's head shines with hues of purple and green.
This iridescent effect is thanks to a complex feather microstructure that dramatically alters the visual effect as the bird moves. When the viewing angle is just right, the colors pop and when it isn't the colors disappear.
Moving east on the mural, we encounter the Superb Lyrebird of Australia. He's in mid display, with his long tail plumes tossed over his head and beak open to belt out a cacophony of noisy notes. This courtship dance also features fancy footwork and a slight quivering of the feathers that shade the bird's head.
Captured on the mural in South America with wings spread, the Sunbittern looks like the ultimate showoff. But unlike the lyrebird's courtship dance, this display is used to discourage intruders, not to impress mates.
Quickly fanning its wings in response to danger, the bird reveals a striking pattern of bright reds and stark blacks that some have likened to the eye spots on butterfly wings.
The stately Emperor Penguin anchors the mural on its lower edge, standing over three feet tall. Though not immediately obvious, penguins are covered in feathers too. But these aren't just any feathers. They are specialized to help the birds survive some of the coldest air temperatures on earth, as well as in the frigid waters where they fish.
The artist's detailed brush strokes clue us in to the dense coat of feathers that help these penguins stay warm in their extreme environment. The outer feathers you see here are maintained through constant preening to form a waterproof coat-like barrier. Just underneath lie the down feathers that trap warm air next to the skin. A layer of blubber also helps these birds survive the cold.
We also now know from detailed analysis of well-preserved fossils that some early feathers were colorful, suggesting that bird ancestors used them to show off to rivals and potential mates.
Anchiornis was a bird-like creature from the Jurassic that had black and white feathers along all four limbs and a bright red crest.
Some of these birds were huge and flightless, like this Sylviornis. The last of these majestic creatures was hunted over 2,000 years ago on what is now New Caledonia.
Though a variety of birds species larger than the ostrich popped up over time across the globe, none survive today. For most of the flightless giants, human exploitation proved to be too much for their populations to withstand.
Human activities continue to threaten bird species. Today, natural gems like the I'iwi of Hawaii are experiencing rapid population declines. Without careful attention to conservation action it is possible that this species will become extinct within our lifetimes.
It's not just the I'iwi that is in trouble. Worldwide, one in eight bird species is currently at risk of disappearing.
Fortunately, there are many ways to help birds, some as easy as standing up for open space in your area.
This mural is an ode to the diversity of birds and the deep evolutionary history of our feathered planet. Get to know all the birds on the mural, hear their sounds, and explore dynamically generated range maps with the Wall of Birds web interactive from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Mural detail: Great Gray Owl
Visit the mural in person at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Visitor Center in Ithaca, New York.
Artist: Jane Kim, Ink Dwell Studio
Author: Mya Thompson
Photographers: Karen Rodriguez, Noah Warnke, Shailee Shah
Videographer and producer: Karen Rodriguez
Lyrebird footage: Anastasia Dalziell and Justin Welbergen