“Birds on a Wire” on display at Turtle Bay Exploration Park’s McConnell Gardens. Photo Courtesy of Turtle Bay.

New birds have landed at the inner entrance of the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens at Turtle Bay Exploration Park.

The one-hundred-and-twenty hand-crafted birds, formed from coconut fiber and lightweight materials traditionally used in West Coast Indigenous basket making, currently sit on cables placed in the gardens during a recent holiday lights show. The birds are part of a public health-focused art installation titled “Birds on a Wire.”

Photo courtesy of Turtle Bay Exploration Park.

Created by artist John Harper, the birds were commissioned as part of California’s “Your Actions Save Lives” campaign, an initiative aimed at helping slow the state’s COVID-19 transmission. The program was funded in partnership with The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, a non-profit focused on increasing health and quality of life in Northern California.

The twenty art installations placed at fourteen sites throughout California as part of the campaign are intended to stimulate community conversations and encourage social behaviors that limit the spread of COVID-19. Artists selected to represent ethnically diverse communities were asked to use cultural symbolism to communicate messages about human behaviors that can impact COVID-19 spread.

John Harper speaks at a reception for “Birds on a Wire,” a new art installation at the McConnell Arboretum and Gardens. Photo courtesy of Turtle Bay Exploration Park.

Harper, a life-long Shasta County resident who formerly worked as the curator of the Redding Museum and Art Center, then as a long-time teacher at Shasta College, says he has lost three close friends to COVID-19 over the last year. He viewed this community art project as a chance to contribute to local health and safety.

It was also an opportunity to share some of the lessons about nature he learned early in life from his grandmother, a member of the Nor-El-Muk Wintu Nation. With only two-and-a-half months to design, plan, and execute the art installation, he drew on Indigenous beliefs surrounding animal representation as well as Native American practices of learning from the natural world. “For many generations,” Harper said,  “animals have been used to teach lessons such as caring for others and wisely avoiding danger.”

Over the course of the next weeks and months, Harper told Shasta Scout, he deepened his knowledge about animal behaviors, compiling documentation indicating that birds often modify behaviors for their own health and well-being in ways that bear resemblance to the changes Californians have had to make for COVID-19. He shares these important lessons in text plaques placed alongside the birds, describing striking connections between bird behaviors and COVID-influenced human behavioral changes.

According to Harper, one such example can be found in the Great Hornbill, a bird that nests in holes within trees. He says Hornbill mates work together to use mud walling to isolate the nesting female.   The male, who remains outside the nest, feeds the female through a slit left in the mud wall, while the female throws her waste out through the same opening. After the female’s eggs hatch, she breaks out through the mud wall, then the pair work together again to re-close the mudding and safely isolate their offspring, feeding them through a new slit in the mud until they are old enough to fly. The example is intended to show a connection between American’s recent social adaptations to utilize isolation and quarantine practices and the long-existing habits of the natural world.

In a similar lesson from nature, Harper says finches, who can detect illness in other members of their flock, will fly and perch at a distance from ill birds, effectively using social distancing measures to guard themselves from communicable disease.

The installation also references the habits of crows, who are known to dip or wash their food prior to eating it.  Harper says it’s not clear if they do so to clean the food or to soften it, but the action is reminiscent of the increased hygiene practices, including cleaning and hand-washing, that humans have been asked to adopt during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Birds on a Wire” incorporates text helping to explain the connections between human adaptations to COVID-19 and the behavior of birds. Photo courtesy of Turtle Bay Exploration Park.

In recent months, California’s COVID-19 infection rates have dropped as California’s vaccination rates have climbed.  But with Shasta County’s current vaccination rate (35.2 percent) significantly lower than the statewide average (52.9 percent), other public health precautions will play an important role in continuing to keep infections low. Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency, as well as other public health agencies nationwide, advocate for hand washing, masking, social distancing, and social isolation as a means of continuing to reduce local COVID-19 infections

In California, Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nationally Native Americans are 3.5 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than Whites, and their mortality rate is almost twice as high. According to a study published by The Lancet, COVID-19 risks for this population are  exacerbated by a lack of data on these communities that would help funnel federal COVID-19 resources to these populations.

According to this research, high rates of health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension among Native communities are connected to racial inequities that include lack of access to healthcare, poverty, multi-generational living conditions, and proximity to food deserts. Native American risk factors for COVID-19 cannot be separated from the continuing impacts of settler colonialism which drove the systematic destruction of Indigenous food systems and ecologies, deeply and adversely impacting Native populations’ health and financial stability.

Harper describes growing up surrounded by many siblings and a large extended family who lived closely connected on a series of small farms.  On his father’s side, Harper’s family are the descendants of White settlers who claimed land in Whitmore in the 1870’s. On his mother’s side, his ancestry derives from the Nor-El-Muk Wintu Nation, an Indigenous tribe of at least 1,000 people who are not federally recognized.  

Harper says research shows that the Nor-El-Muk Wintu, also known as the Wintun, have lived for around 10 millennia on land which is now commonly known as Shasta and Trinity Counties.  Like many California Indian people in the region, the Nor-El-Muk struggled to survive state- and federally-funded campaigns of genocide and dispossession during the first few decades of the California’s existence. Gold miner vigilantes murdered an estimated 300 Nor-El-Muk women and children at the infamous Natural Bridge massacre in 1852.  Harper says he hopes  “Birds on a Wire” honors the Nor-El-Muk Wintu nation and other federally unrecognized local Native American people groups.

Birds line the entry to the McConnell Gardens and Arboretum at Turtle Bay Exploration Park. Photo courtesy of Turtle Bay.

In a press release, Julia Pennington Cronin, Turtle Bay’s Curator of Collections and Exhibits, called Harper’s work a perfect fit for the park.

“His use of Wintu folklore and avian survival tactics to convey safe practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19, dovetails with our interdisciplinary nature and core values. Installed in our Botanical Gardens where so many people have enjoyed safe, socially distant outdoor experiences during the pandemic, this artwork adds both beauty and a vital educational  message” Pennington Cronin stated, according to the release.

“Birds on a Wire” will remain on exhibit through August 29, 2021.

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