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Three Billion exhibit at the Hudgens; "Barn Owl" by Kate Breakey.
Artist Kate Breakey's "Barn Owl" is part of a wall installation featuring more than 60 photograms hung salon style as part of "Three Billion," at the Hudgens Center for Art & Learning beginning Saturday.

Hudgens’ “Three Billion” uses art to recall — and warn us — of lost, endangered birds

When a snowy owl touched down in Central Park last week, it marked a first in 130 years and set off a Twitter storm among birders, photographers and urbanites in search of the extraordinary. It’s not unusual for owls to hunt along the Eastern Seaboard when migrating, but the sight of an Arctic raptor in Gotham raised alarm bells among environmentalists and conservationists. 

Now, the Hudgens Center for Art & Learning in Gwinnett County is raising awareness about how humans pressure the bird kingdom in an exhibition titled Three Billion (February 6–April 24). Free, timed passes are available for the opening. Social distancing and masks will be required for visitors throughout the exhibit’s run.

The exhibit features 10 artists whose work has delved into declining bird populations or celebrated the world of birds and their habitats. Brickworks Gallery owner/artist Laura W. Adams curated the multimedia collection, which is co-sponsored by Georgia Audubon. It’s designed to represent the 3 billion North American birds that, according to a recent study in the journal Science, have been lost in the past 50 years

Pamela Longobardi’s “Rainbows End in Paradise” (2017) consists of remnants from plastic lighters found in albatross nests

“Birds are the canary in the coal mine,”  Adams says. “If the bird population is declining, that means our natural resources are declining. And if our natural resources and ability to support wildlife is declining, then it’s not a far reach to say that it will impact the human population eventually. Birds are the harbingers calling out for help. If we help them, we will help humankind in general.”

Human activity — including habitat loss, overuse of pesticides, building strikes and free-roaming domestic cats — is the primary cause of declining bird populations across all ecological communities. Adams is optimistic that the uptick among people who’ve become more attuned to the natural world (a result of sheltering-in-place) will be encouraged to consider how their choices can impact birds.

A prime example is Pamela Longobardi’s Rainbows End in Paradise (2017). The installation consists of remnants from 490 plastic lighters found in albatross nests on Midway Atoll, an inaccessible spot in the northern Hawaiian Islands that’s the primary home to more than a million nesting Laysan albatross. 

“Flightless chicks rely on their parents flying up into the Arctic Circle, bringing back food in their stomachs to regurgitate to them,” says Longobardi, an art professor at Georgia State University. “Because of massive amounts of plastic in the ocean, the birds mistake plastic for food — lighters particularly look similar to fish and squid. All these lighters were fed to chicks, most often causing their death. These are ghost objects that have a dismal afterlife in the non-human world.”  

Chris Condon, whose Greenman fountain at the Atlanta Botanical Garden is a focal point in the Children’s Garden, describes his wood carvings as “hybrids rather than replicas of what I see in nature.” His sculptures explore the danger to birds on migratory routes. Wildlife sculptor Chris Wilson’s hyper-detailed depictions of waterfowl, songbirds, owls and hawks in wood, marble and bronze reflect his passion as an avid birder and nature conservationist. 

Chris Wilson’s “Habitat” depicts a Rose-breasted grosbeak with wood, metal and oil.

And Kate Breakey’s series, Small Deaths, features hand-painted photographs and photogram collages of wildlife that has died. People send Breakey, a South Australia native, the bodies of dead birds from all over the world. Adams herself has collected the bodies of window-strike birds that hit skyscrapers in Atlanta and shipped them to Breakey’s studio in Tucson — where she photographed them and turned each feathered creature into a work of art.

Virtual events in conjunction with Three Billion include artist talks, webinars, panel discussions and a poetry reading. Drew Lanham, a wildlife professor at Clemson University, will do the poetry reading. His research focuses on songbird ecology and the African American role in conservation. 

A VIP reception on March 20 will include an Audubon Society ambassador and Sibley — a Ruby-throated hummingbird nursed back to health after a window collision left it unable to fly. Visit the Brickworks website and the Hudgens Center’s Facebook page for ongoing updates on special events.

“I want this show to make a difference,” Adams says. “John Audubon used art to raise awareness about birds in North America and we hope Three Billion will do the same by reminding visitors that balance in biodiversity can mean the difference between life and death for birds and the entire planet.”