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Alta Plaza birds take flight

Bay Area Bird Encounters is Walter Kitundu's new interactive art piece at SFO.

Travelers through the swank new terminal two at San Francisco International Airport will find friends from the neighborhood to bid them hail and farewell. Birds from Alta Plaza Park are part of an ingenious new piece of interactive musical art created by longtime neighborhood resident Walter Kitundu for a children’s play area.

It’s intended for children of all ages.

“If you don’t feel like playing the benches, you can always sit on them,” says Kitundu of the two wing-shaped wooden seats that are also xylophones tuned to play the song of the golden-crowned sparrow.

The benches are part of a project he calls Bay Area Bird Encounters. They sit in front of a 28-foot-long mural of birds Kitundu photographed, then printed on sheets of veneered plywood and hand-carved into a wooden mosaic of 147 separate pieces. There’s a third sparrow in the mural, also a xylophone.

A few years ago, Kitundu spent months in Alta Plaza photographing a red-tailed hawk he named Patch, who grew up in the park. Patch was in the initial drafts of the mural, but didn’t make the final cut because the photographs weren’t of sufficient high resolution. But the mural includes three young red-tails, along with an Anna’s hummingbird Kitundu photographed in Alta Plaza with a new, more advanced camera.

“That added a whole new dimension,” he says. “I had to go back out into the field and have the birds cooperate.”

For several years he lived in the Fillmore and worked at the Exploratorium. But after he was named a MacArthur Fellow and received what is often called a “genius grant” ­— including $500,000 over five years with no strings attached — he moved to West Oakland, where he has more room to make photographs, build instruments and compose music, among many other creative pursuits.

“I shy away from genius talk,” he says. “I’ve been trying not to believe the hype, but to take advantage of such a generous gift.”

Kitundu says he still haunts the Fillmore, but not as much as he would like. “I never go through the area without taking a detour to Alta Plaza,” he says. “The minute I see a bird, I’m a local again.”

Walter Kitundu: trying not to believe the hype, but seizing the opportunities.

EARLIER: “A red-tailed hawk at Alta Plaza