Trees are increasingly becoming sparse in today’s cities, making it harder for different bird species to thrive. So since 2006, artist Thomas Dambo has been building them birdhouses – already numbering more than 3,500.
The Copenhagen-based creative’s ongoing project Happy City Birds involves turning salvaged wood and donated paint into colourful and imaginative birdhouses. He installs these tiny dwellings across urban centres, usually on the side of buildings, on top of street lamps, or somewhere hidden inside a park’s canopy.
Most of Dambo’s works can be found in Arken, but you can also see some in Copenhagen, Beirut, Berlin, Aarhus, Odense, and Horsens.
According to CityLab, Dambo’s efforts are artistic and conservationist in nature, and actually play an important role in the survival of various bird species.
“If installing a birdhouse on a tree seems counterproductive, it’s not: Audubon notes that as natural settings have dwindled, urban birds have grown to depend on human-built dwellings.
“Some species—Bluebirds and Chimney Swifts in particular—prefer to settle in manmade houses over more natural roosts.
“When well-made and placed among inviting surroundings, Audubon writes that ‘a nest box or birdhouse may be occupied, defended, and filled with eggs almost immediately’.”
We recently caught up with Dambo to find out more about his incredible series Happy City Birds.
What was the inspiration behind the project?
“At the time I started doing the project, I was heavily involved in the street art and graffiti scene. Must have been around 2006. I was experimenting with different materials and techniques, trying to find my own form and language.
“One day, I was able to scavenge several hundreds of plywood boards. The plywood boards were waste from the transport industry. I brought all the plywood home, thinking I could do some nice street art with it. And at some point, I came up with the idea to make birdhouses.
“Like I said, I was doing a lot of street art and graffiti back then, and some of my friends had gotten in real trouble for painting the streets. I really love graffiti and appreciate it, but many people don’t do the same, so as a graffiti painter, you often have to work at night running from the police.
“So for me making birdhouses was also a way of doing something everybody liked, something I could all day, where I don’t have to run from anybody. I think it’s because the birdhouse, unlike a lot of street art and graffiti, serves a purpose, the purpose of being a birdhouse.”
Is there a message the project is trying to tell its audience?
“I come from a family that likes birds, so as a kid I have always been watching birds bathing, nesting, and eating outside my grandmother’s window. I also come from a family of environmentalists, so I was always taught about the importance of taking care of nature.
“All my birdhouses are made of recycled materials. I see my birdhouses as half art project, half environmental awareness project. I believe it’s important that we humans live in coexistence with the animals in our world.
“In the big cities of Denmark, the only wild animals you really see are birds. And therefore, I think is important to make room for the birds the city.
“Sometimes, I put a birdhouse in a light pole or a light signal close to a busy street. Often, birds will not move into a birdhouse like this, because birds don’t like the smell and noise from the cars. But the birdhouse will still be there, and maybe remind us that nature wants to live in our cities, but not if we make our cities dirty and noisy.
“Sometimes, I put a birdhouse in a tree on a small street, and birds will move in right away. I think this is really nice and tells a story of the importance of creating space for the birds in our cities. For me, both things work.”
You’ve been doing this since 2006. How has your style changed since then?
“It has changed from doing one single birdhouse at a time, to doing bigger projects where I now incorporate habitats for birds in my sculptures.
“I’ve done many workshops wherein different people helped me to make more birdhouses – ones that look like birds or are painted to camouflage themselves. You can see some of my different birdhouse projects on my homepage here, as well as here, here, and here.”
How many more birdhouses do you plan to build before ending the project?
“For me, it’s now a part of my artist DNA, and I believe I will never stop making them.”
Which cities do you plan to visit next?
“I’m doing a big garden of plastic waste in Mexico City in March and then I’m doing seven of my big recycled troll like sculptures in Chicago next. Both projects will have something for the birds.
“And then I’m planning for a giant sculpture that has a big bath house inside, if I find the right location and funding for this sculpture I believe it will be my best work yet, so please hit me up on thomasdambo.com if you read this and have a place with a huge bat population that needs a sculpture and a bathhouse.”