9/11 – Dead Birds. Lost. On the Ground

2001 (after 9/11)
20 x 25 cm – 24 x 30 cm – (8 x 10″ – 11 x 14 “)

These pictures show dead birds that crashed into the windows of the WTC on their spring- and early fall migration in 2001.

– (see text below)

Die Bilder zeigen tote Vögel der Frühjahrs- und frühen Herbstmigration 2001, die rund um das World Trade Center in New York jeweils frühmorgens von Volunteers der Audubon Society aufgelesen wurden – (siehe Text unten)

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In May (2001), I came across an article in Metropolis about bird-glass collisions at the WTC. Having done already two series with (living) birds (Coordinates. Nomads / Nomads II)I was very interested in this topic. I got in touch with volunteers from the Audubon Society in New York, who collected every morning during migration the dead or injured birds that bumped into the tall buildings.

For me, the symbolic potential of a bird, its myth, which also consists of the idea of freedom, its beauty, its proximity to heaven, (to the ‘gods’), its almost mysterious sense of direction, suddenly contrasted with what happened to some of them on their migration. They collided with another symbol – the Twin Towers: evidence of the human will and its ability to build skyscrapers (almost literally), to sculpt, shape, and transform man-made material into a three-dimensional space.

Although glass collisions occur everywhere and birds are not killed primarily at skyscraper sites, the WTC was somehow more lethal than other locations due to its specific environmental conditions – such as open location, lighting environment, amount of glass sheets, light reflections, visible habitat through windows and night lights on top of the buildings. As birds tend to fly towards the light, they were disoriented by the floodlights. They circled around the beams for hours to exhaustion and fell injured or dead to the ground.

The birds killed at such sites are mainly nighttime migrants. Usually they orient themselves by the stars, but when the sky is overcast, they get irritated by the city lights or their reflections in the glass. Unable to recognize glass as an obstacle, they fly in and get hurt.

At the end of May, I asked if I could join the volunteers in their daily task of collecting the birds. We agreed to start the new project in the fall, as the spring migration was almost over anyway. Back in Europe, during the summer break, I often thought about the project with some discomfort. There I got the daily emails (*) from the volunteers, read about the direction of the wind, read about the nature of the sky, saw lists of ‘casualties’ and found out what was going on early in the morning on that particular site.  I didn’t have a clear idea yet of what I was going to do with all of this after I returned to NY. These dead birds just touched me. There might have been a certain parallel between the irritations of the birds and my initial experience of living in this city with my 14-year-old son.

When I was back in New York at the beginning of September 2001, I was looking forward to finally starting the project. Then came the 11th of September and what is now called 9/11. This horrifying event transformed the project immensely. For a long time, I was shocked, we were all shocked, the world was shocked. I thought the project was over and literally buried, so to speak. I have to admit that I was a bit petrified, too, because what happened on September 11th seemed to be anticipated to a lesser degree in these bird-window collisions. What a strange coincidence! Suddenly the project had become uncanny, eerie, unsettling and disturbing.

Nevertheless, after a few weeks, I decided to continue the project after all. I knew that the volunteers would normally keep the birds in a freezer or a while before sending them to Washington for research. I called the Audubon Society and asked if they still had the dead birds that had crashed into the WTC before 9/11. After all the remaining dead birds were brought together, I was allowed to photograph them.

The experience of 9/11 has completely changed my perception, but not just mine: this terror attack has fundamentally and sustainably changed our lives and the way we live together to this day.

* Some of the emails:

May 17 2001
“… were on the site from 5:40 t0 @7:40. Despite a night of mostly south winds, almost
no casualties were found.”

Bird tally, August 16 , 2001
“… dead northern waterthrush at WTC2 … Time 0600

… dead ovenbird … between WTC2 and the Marriott. Time 06:45″

Aug. 28, 2001
“…. The dead bird looks like it might be a flycatcher, a bird I’ve never id’d. It had a shorter (non warbler-looking) beak, an eye ring, and wing bars. It had an unmarked white breast and belly, grey around its eyering  and a yellowish cap and back feathers. It’s about 4”. Suggestions welcome, but remember I do have it available for later id. …
4 a.m forecast Mostly sunny. High in the lower 80s. Northwest wind 5 to 10 mph”

“September 4 2001 02:20:42 PM Subject: Re: Saturday, 9/1
I saw no birds at all. There was much more activity than I have ever seen on a Saturday. The Wintergarden area was starting to be cleaned at 6 AM (very early for Sat.), music was piped loudly from WTC4, there was the noise from plaza from the pressurized water cleaning, and the homeless were sleeping at the chairs and tables by WTC5 or walking about …

September 9 2001 11:41:32 AM
” … On my second round of WTC, I saw a falcon flying high over the plaza. With my binoculars, I saw it land near the top of the ornate old building NE of the plaza, which I believe is the Wolworth (
sic!) bldg. From there, the falcon has a view of the whole plaza and the front on the WFC. Little wonder that we’re getting competition for the little birds.”
I deeply thank the Audubon Society for their help. Special thanks also to D. Klem Jr. (Professor of Ornithology and Conservation Biology at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA) for answering my questions about bird-window collisions, glass and bird kills, cause and prevention, etc.(NYC, 2002/2004)

Zugvögel orientieren sich nachts auf ihrem Flug nach den Sternen. Ist der Himmel bedeckt, werden sie über Städten oft durch Lichtspiegelungen in Scheiben und Glasfassaden irregeleitet. Beim WTC gab es aber nicht nur viel Glas, sondern zudem auch Scheinwerfer auch den Dächern. Da Vögel jeweils in Richtung Licht fliegen, wurden sie von diesen Scheinwerfern angezogen, kreisten in deren Lichtkegel oft stundenlang bis zur totalen Erschöpfung und fielen dann zu Boden.

Darauf aufmerksam geworden bin ich im Mai 2001 durch einen Artikel in der Zeitschrift METROPOLIS, der über diese Glaskollisionen beim WTC berichtete. Die toten Vögel wurden dort jeweils in den frühen Morgenstunden von Freiwilligen der Audubon Society aufgelesen. Ich nahm daher Kontakt mit dieser auf und vereinbarte, dass ich sie ab September auf ihren frühmorgendlichen Rundgängen begleiten würde, da die Frühjahrsmigration schon fast vorüber war.

Da ich zuvor schon zwei Serien mit lebenden Vögeln gemacht hatte, beeindruckte mich das Thema sehr. Der symbolische Gehalt von Vögeln, ihre Nähe zum Himmel, ihre Fähigkeit zu fliegen und sich am Licht und im Raum zu orientieren, ihre Schönheit und ihr Mythos, der in der Idee der Freiheit besteht, stand hier im Gegensatz zu dem, was einigen von ihnen auf ihrem Migrationsflug geschah. Sie kollidierten mit einem anderen, mächtigen Symbol: dem World Trade Center im Financial District.

Den Sommer über, ich war in Europa, war ich via E-Mail mit den Leuten der Audubon Society in Verbindung. Ich las, woher der Wind wehte; ich las wie viele Vögel sie aufgelesen hatten; ich las, um welche Arten es sich handelte, und es freute mich jeweils, wenn in der Statistik an einigen Tagen überhaupt nichts eingetragen war. Was genau ich mit den toten Vögeln machen würde, war mir indes noch nicht ganz klar. Ich war davon einfach irgendwie bewegt und berührt.

Anfangs September war ich zurück in NY und war bereit für dieses Projekt. Doch dann kamen die Anschläge vom 11. September 2001. Niemand dachte mehr an ‘Projekte’.
Wochen später entschied ich mich aber dennoch das Projekt, falls noch möglich, zu realisieren, nun aber unter grundlegend veränderten Gesichtspunkten.

Ich wusste, dass die toten Vögel jeweils in Gefrierfächern aufbewahrt wurden, bevor sie zu Forschungszwecken nach Washington verschickt wurden. Ich bat Leute der Audubon Society alle noch vorhandenen toten Vögel der 2001 Migration zusammenzubringen. Ich konnte daraufhin die toten, gefrorenen Vögel bei ihnen im Büro fotografieren.

Ich danke der Audubon Society NY sehr für deren Unterstützung.