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Birds, Wildlife and Gardening

The Audubon Mural Project Lands in the Pacific Northwest

A Swainson's Thrush painted in the Vashon Audubon Mural. The secretive, small brown woodland bird is projected to lose 46 percent of its summer breeding range in Washington State if global warming continues apace.
A colorful flock is turning heads on a small island in the Pacific Northwest. Over the past year the birds have descended on a restored wetland, taking up permanent residence on a concrete retaining wall next to alder trees and flowering honeysuckle. The Vashon Audubon Mural, an extension of the Audubon Mural Project, has transformed a quiet meadow on Vashon Island into a vibrant space for contemplation, education, and community activism.

“People said things like, ‘This is the best thing to happen on Vashon in ages,’” says Julie Burman, Vashon Audubon President. Heron Meadow, once filled with invasive weeds and blackberry brambles, now features native plants and brightly colored chairs for visitors. “Part of it, of course, was the pandemic last summer. And so any place where you could be outside and sit and have coffee and watch an artist paint—that made us all happy.” 

The 13-mile-long island in Washington State’s Puget Sound is home to 10,000 residents and is accessible only by ferry. That has fostered a tight-knit community, says Burman, and helped preserve the island’s wild spaces. Vashon Island’s parks, nature preserves, and long stretches of shoreline host around 80 migratory bird species each year and another 50 year-round residents. After seeing how the Audubon Mural Project, which commissions artists to paint climate-threatened birds in New York City, sparked conversation about birds and climate change, Burman decided to bring the concept to Vashon Island and showcase the island’s vulnerable species and habitats. According to Audubon's Survival By Degrees report, roughly 30 percent of Washington State will transition to a different biome by the end of the century at the current pace of warming, and the state will experience heavier rainfall and significantly higher average temperatures during both the warmest and coldest months of the year.

Vashon Audubon considered barns, water towers, and buildings around the island when scouting for a mural location. After visiting the two-acre meadow-wetland behind Vashon Center for the Arts, Burman knew it would be a perfect fit. The wetland, called Heron Meadow, forms part of the eastern headwaters of the island’s largest salmon-bearing creek and was in the process of being restored by the Vashon Center for the Arts and Vashon Nature Center. The arts center director offered the adjacent retaining wall for the mural and suggested Burman reach out to Britt Freda, a local artist who uses her work to highlight the plight of endangered species. 

Before she begins painting, Freda studies each species, their history, and characteristics to ensure she’s “representing them in a way that is true to their nature,” she says. She has strategically placed the painted birds in areas of the meadow where visitors might encounter the real thing. The Red-breasted Nuthatch is tucked behind a grove of alder trees, while species that relish open space like the Sharp-shinned Hawk are toward the center of the meadow. The mural highlights eight of the 141 species in Washington State vulnerable to climate change during their summer breeding season, according to Survival By Degrees: the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Rufous Hummingbird, Steller’s Jay, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Violet-green Swallow, Swainson’s Thrush, Bufflehead, and Barrow’s Goldeneye. Six of the species have been completed, and Freda aims to finish the Bufflehead and Barrow’s Goldeneye later this summer. 

When discussing climate change and imperiled species, the risks can seem abstract. Burman finds that focusing on local wildlife helps make the stakes more concrete. “People come and say, ‘What do you mean, climate-threatened birds? I see these birds all the time,” Burman says. That starts a conversation and introduces an opportunity to talk about efforts that can help.  

Artist Britt Freda paints a bird on a concrete retaining wall at Heron Meadow on Vashon Island.

At the centerpiece of the colorful flock is a dedication to future generations and a land acknowledgment. The statement recognizes that the mural is on the land of the sx̌ʷəbabš, or Swiftwater People, which are now part of the Puyallup Tribe, and is an important part of the mural’s mission to educate and inspire action through art. When crafting the land acknowledgment, Freda and Vashon Audubon consulted with a local historian and members of the Puyallup Tribe. “It’s important not to reference Native American cultures as a thing of the past, but to really pay attention to the incredible work and the leadership that they're bringing right now,” Freda says.  Reflecting on past injustices can be uncomfortable, she says, but it’s a necessary step to heal, move forward, and cultivate a better future.

Heron Meadow has already become a gathering space for locals who stop to ask about the striking birds. Freda usually works alone in her studio and has relished the opportunity to connect with members of her community. “We have some elders on the island who've been here since they were children, and their relationships to birds and stories about those birds from their childhood make the whole picture so much richer,” Freda says. She hopes these past connections will inspire action on climate change so that future generations of Vashon Islanders will have the same chance to find joy through birds.

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