The birds fly northeast to southwest, following their annual migration route.
Four of them fly in Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center. They’re big birds with wings of orange, red and black and gray-white bodies.
They’re also fake.
Painted by Gus Gaston, a senior in graphic design at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the wooden birds are representations of yellow-billed cuckoos, a species that’s part of a research project by Reflection Riding.
Specifically, the birds—living ones, that is—are being tracked by the Motus Wildlife Tracking System, an international network that simultaneously tracks hundreds of species of birds, bats and insects. At Reflection Riding, a Motus antenna is attached to a gray building. A humdrum-shade-of-gray building, Gaston said.
“I like to joke that I got this job by telling an important man that his building was boring, but that’s pretty much exactly what happened,” Gaston said.
“I was so excited about the research being conducted through this Motus tracking antenna, but all it was when I came across it was a dull, gray building and a metal structure with no sign, no explanation and nothing that could draw a viewer in and learn more about what is happening.”
The birds are part of an art installation designed by Gaston and Derek Witucki, a lecturer in graphic design in the UTC Department of Art, stretching across one wall and part of another on the building with offices for the Reflection Riding Welcome Station. Along with the birds, the walls are painted—with help from student Ty Allen—with vertical stripes in radiant shades of green, yellow, orange and blue.
The artwork can be seen easily from Garden Road, the main paved pathway through Reflection Riding. With its new swath of colors, the building jumps out visually.
“Our feeling was that this is a main throughway and there’s something cool that could happen here if we can activate this space,” Witucki said. “They wanted to bring attention to the conservation and the cool science that’s actually happening right here.”
A $10,000 grant from ArtsBuild and a $1,490 creative activities grant from UTC helped pay for materials, he said.
Originally, the work was called a “mural,” but that’s not precisely correct, Witucki said. Because of battens—slim, vertical pieces of wood attached to the wall every foot to hide seams—the image is broken up into sections instead of the flow of a traditional mural.
“It doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but painting a design that makes sense from any angle with those slats is not easy,” Gaston said. “It was less of an inspiration and more of a response to challenges.”