Paper Menagerie on Governors Island

Paper cutout facsimile of a Gray Catbird, photographed by Carolyn Monastra on Governors Island for her AiR conceptual art project, “Divergence of Birds.”

By Olivia Liang

On Sunday, October 1, Carolyn Monastra’s new exhibit “Divergence of Birds” debuted at NYC Bird Alliance’s seasonal environmental Center on Governors Island. For four weeks, two of our downstairs rooms will be dedicated to Monastra’s photography exhibit which looks to our impending climate-changed future—and the birds that may or may not be there. 

Monastra, a NYC Bird Alliance Artist in Residence, began this conceptual art project in 2015 after reading National Audubon Society’s first “Birds and Climate Change Report,” which listed 314 climate-threatened birds. 389 species are now on the brink.

“It really hit me,” said Monastra, whose previous photography work often featured birds, though she had never taken them on as a standalone subject. 

“This bell went off in my head.” 

Wanting to photograph the climate crisis with birds as the scope, Monastra sought inspiration from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This science fiction classic features almost-human androids, with highly realistic electric versions of once-commonplace animals. While the electric animals only play a minor role in this dystopian world, they prompted a daunting question: “What will our animals look like in the future?” 

As Monastra considered how climate change, habitat loss, and human impact would affect the birds of our future, her project took shape. 

The result: a paper menagerie and a surreal blend of fact and fiction. 

Left: "Divergence of Birds" artist Carolyn Monastra; Right: Paper cutout facsimile of a Brown Creeper, photographed by Carolyn Monastra on Governors Island.
Monastra’s “Divergence of Birds” is first and foremost a photography exhibition. And yet, while at first glance her work seems to be a collection of stunning yet standard portraits of birds, upon further inspection, something feels… off. 

“I want there to be a sense of unease,” she says. “I want people to stop and go—wait a minute…” 

The birds in these nature portraits are not live specimens, captured in a lucky shot during a momentary stretch or song. They are instead something far more profound: paper cutouts of climate-threatened species, posed then photographed in their rightful habitats which soon may no longer be there: cropped pictures of two Common Terns, balanced in the sand with chopsticks and tape; a Fish Crow nestled into a Dwarf Palmetto Tree. Walking through the two rooms of Nolan House #17, each visitor can see how Monastra placed her cutouts within the birds’ habitats so that they look real, but upon inspection, reveal themselves to be photos within photos—a gesture to the recession of actual birds into marginal zones of survival.

When first embarking on the project, Monastra needed high-quality bird photos to stage, yet lacked the proper equipment and experience as a wildlife photographer. Originally, Monastra turned to secondhand bird books and guides, cropping avian cutouts that would then be returned to their natural habitats to be photographed. As her project has grown, along with Monastra's dedication to respecting other artists and not infringing on any copyrights, she now turns to paid stock and Creative Commons photos, along with contributions from ornithologists she meets in her travels.

Monastra’s work is both framed in our showroom and printed on silk banners, alluding to the delicate status of our many birds. These floating banners are suspended from the ceiling, inviting viewers to walk beneath an avian canopy. 

As part of the "Divergence of Birds" exhibit, Carolyn Monastra’s photographs hang on silk banners inside our Governors Island seasonal environmental center. Photo: NYC Bird Alliance
The artistic process of creating these portraits has been quite the adventure, laughed Monastra, remembering a rogue wave that separated her pair of Laughing Gulls in Florida. In Texas, she had trouble relocating a print whose camouflage was too effective… even in a reproduced print form. And in Houston, as Monastra positioned her Indigo Bunting cutouts, a speedwalking couple stopped and gasped, mistaking them for live birds who were injured or sick. Offering their aid, Monastra revealed her artistic undertaking, letting her blend of art and conservation work reach beyond an exhibition. 

Monastra plans to continue building her photographed menagerie, hoping it can be an educational tool for children to learn about birds, climate change, and our human impact. 

“[Birds] really are the canary in the coal mine for climate change,” says Monastra, adding with pride and hope: “They’re so small, but so resilient.” 

Carolyn Monastra is an artist, activist, and educator, using photography, video, sound, and community engagement to address environmental concerns and examine our relationship to surrounding ecosystems. Learn more about Monastra at; “Divergence of Birds” at, and on Instagram @carolyn_monastra

“Divergence in Birds,” as well as another Artist-in-Residence exhibition—“Paggank ‘Hunting Grounds’” by Dennis RedMoon Darkeem—will be on display through the end of October, when our 2023 seasonal stay on Governors Island concludes. Learn more about our seasonal nature center on Governors Island

-Olivia Liang, Communications Associate