Memorials to Extinct Birds
The Lost Bird Project by Todd McGrain is part natural history, part artist’s diary, documenting the extraordinary effort to place a series of public memorials to birds driven to extinction in modern times. As a chronicle of humankind’s impact on our changing world and a moving record of dwindling biodiversity, The Lost Bird Project is an ode to vanished times and vanished species. The Great Auk, Labrador Duck, Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, and Heath Hen were birds that once filled unique niches in the North American landscape from the shores of Labrador and New York to the Midwestern plains. Across the great American prairie, the skies were nearly black with Passenger Pigeons whose disappearance, like the buffalo’s, was thought to be inconceivable.
As works of site-specific environmental art, the sculptures featured in The Lost Bird Project were originally placed in the locations where the birds were last seen in the wild (below) and are now permanent public sculpture installations.
The Lost Bird Project is courtesy of the artist and presented through the collaboration of Stanford Live, Anderson Collection at Stanford University, and Stanford Office of the Vice President for the Arts.
You can see all five of the Lost Birds on Stanford’s campus using the map below.
At one time, passenger pigeons accounted for an estimated 20 to 40 percent of all land birds of North America. They flew in vast flocks numbering in the millions, sometimes eclipsing the sun for hours. As America’s human population grew and the demand for wild meat increased, hunters slaughtered the birds with great efficiency.
On March 24th, 1900, a boy in Pike County, Ohio shot the last recorded wild passenger pigeon. Fourteen years later, under the watchful eyes of her keepers, the last passenger pigeon in human care, Martha, died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo.
In the past, Carolina parakeets ranged over much of what is now the eastern United States. As the landscape was transformed for agriculture, the birds were attracted to the new food sources. In response, farmers shot them in great numbers. As a communal species, when one bird died, the flock flew to its side, thus ensuring the demise of many more.
Populations were further diminished by feather hunters, trappers who sold them as pets, and competition from European honeybees for roosting sites. The last two known Carolina parakeets lived together for thirty-two years in the Cincinnati Zoo. Lady Jane died in 1917 and Incas, soon after, on February 21, 1918.
Heath hens once ranged from the southern tip of Maine to Virginia. But by 1870, hunting by European settlers had reduced the population to a few hundred birds on Martha’s Vineyard. Efforts to save them were enacted, but wildfire, disease and the unfortunate arrival of predatory goshawks ravaged the remaining population.
In 1929, a hopeful male named Booming Ben was witnessed calling out to others of his kind, but there were none left to hear his plea. He was last seen on March 11, 1932.
The Labrador duck once migrated along the East Coast of North America from Labrador to the Chesapeake Bay. Diving through silt and shallows, it used its wide, flat bill to feed on mussels and shellfish.
Not especially popular as a game bird, the reasons for the species’ extinction remain unclear. Habitat loss and diminished populations of shallow-water mollusks, a primary food source, are thought to have played a role. The last known Labrador duck was shot on December 12, 1878, in Elmira, NY, having been blown inland by a huge storm.
Swift and agile in water, great auks lived most of their lives at sea. But each spring, they came with their life-long partners to mate on the isolated rock islands of the North Atlantic. Flightless and awkward on land, they were easy targets.
By the mid-1500s, their numbers had taken a drastic decline as hunters sought their meat, eggs, oil and especially their feathers. The last documented pair of great auks was killed on Eldey Island, off the southwestern tip of Iceland, on June 3, 1844.
The Lost Bird Project Film Screening
Fri, Feb 24 at 6:00 PM | Oshmann Hall
Free and open to all
A Q&A with sculptor Todd McGrain and composer Christopher Tin will follow the screening.
VOCES8 & Christopher Tin: The Lost Birds
Sat, Feb 25 at 7:30 PM | Bing Concert Hall
Hear the music from The Lost Birds