Bird watchers might well insist that Central Park is really for the birds, as it is one of the world's great migratory way stations with hundreds of species passing through on their way to more exotic ports of call. It is in a unique position, situated along the Atlantic Flyway, a migration corridor that stretches from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of South America. The Park is visited annually by hundreds of bird species who perch there during their flights to and from their breeding grounds. Many birds migrate during the night using the stars as navigational aids, landing wherever they happen to be at sunrise. Often exhausted and hungry, they find themselves over the gray concrete jungle of the greater New York area, in which Central Park appears as an island of green, making it a particularly good place to bird watch during the spring and fall migration seasons. Over the last thirty years, one ornithologist has spotted over 300 species in Central Park. According to an annotated checklist compiled by the Birdwatchers of Central Park for the Central Park Conservancy, The Birds of Central Park (1996 and 2001), there are 24 year-round resident species.
Audubon's spectacular watercolors depict year-round residents of Central Park and migratory denizens, as well as several rare species. In these dazzling drawings, Audubon's innovations in the fields of art and natural history are apparent. He not only rendered the birds life-size, but also captured their lively interactions, sometimes with anthropomorphic characteristics, in cutting-edge, experimental mixed media. The names of species in the exhibition labels do not always reflect current nomenclature.*
In 1863 the Historical Society purchased this rare trove of watercolors, deemed by some a national treasure, directly by subscription from the famed naturalist's widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon (1787–1874). Normally four to six at a time are showcased in quarterly annual migrations in the Historical Society's Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture in the "Audubon Niche." But on this sesquicentennial occasion, a larger selection is installed in honor of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted's and Calvin Vaux's "natural" Manhattan oasis for birds and humans.
* Due to developments in ornithology and taxonomy, some of the birds that Audubon "captured," while having similar names to birds inhabiting Central Park, may not, in fact, be the identical avian species.