Art and Nature
Birds of Paradise
A sculptor’s Lost Bird Project memorializes five extinct avian species.
Todd McGrain has spent the past nine years bringing extinct birds back to life. This time they’ll likely endure: They’re cast in bronze. McGrain is a sculptor, and his latest project is a series of artistic memorials honoring five lost avian species. He plans to place a sculpture of each one near the scene of its last sighting, as well as tour with a set of them to nature centers, parks, and museums. By reminding the public of animals that have disappeared forever, McGrain hopes to spur conservation on behalf of species that still exist.
On this spring day, McGrain has spent the morning tending to a four-foot-tall Carolina parakeet at the Polich Tallix, LLC foundry in Rock Tavern, New York. The place is huge—the floor space is as big as a football field—and abuzz with craftsman wielding tools on projects in various stages of completion. McGrain’s bird is rosy-golden in its unfinished state, and blemished here and there by a few purplish blotches reminiscent of oil slicks and several thick welding seams that have yet to be ground and sanded down. Its tail, however, is shiny and smooth, thanks to the artist’s earlier attention. When completed, the whole bird will appear nearly black, its surface slightly rough and earthy.
Organic forms have often appealed to McGrain, an associate art professor at Cornell University. He found inspiration for his Lost Bird Project, as it’s known, after reading Hope Is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds, by Christopher Cokinos. That book motivated him to learn more about extinct avian species and eventually decide to reintroduce a few to the public. After researching photos and specimens in such institutions as Rome’s Natural History Museum, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, McGrain settled on a handful of species representing a variety of ranges, habitats, and physical appearances, from the famous passenger pigeon to the heath hen, a subspecies of the greater prairie-chicken.
Striking the right balance between the gravity of loss and aesthetic appeal was a difficult challenge. “I want them to be big and ponderous,” says McGrain, “but I also want them to be really big and beautiful.” They are indeed huge—the great auk stands more than five feet and weighs 750 pounds (the real one was just over two feet and an estimated 11 pounds)—but they’re also elegant. Having forgone feathers and other minute details, McGrain instead conjures the spirit of each bird through a few evocative curves and compelling poses. The Labrador duck, for example, nestles its head in the crook of a wing in shy avoidance—fitting for a bird whose life was as nebulous as its death. (It bred in remote areas, and its population apparently declined so quickly that few people noted the collapse.) The Carolina parakeet, on the other hand, perches alertly, head cocked sideways, looking curious, as if scrutinizing its audience. The curve of its back and its slender, narrowing tail practically beg a caress. “Tactility and touch is something really important to me,” says McGrain. “I really want people to touch and hold these things”—and to reflect, as they might do by rubbing a beach stone weathered by time, on the past.
In August McGrain placed his first bird, the Labrador duck, in Elmira, New York, and also recently installed the passenger pigeon at Columbus, Ohio’s new Grange Insurance Audubon Center, 50 miles upstream of the place on the Scioto River where the last wild representative of the species was killed. He also received the green light for one placement of a great auk in Iceland—there are two “last” locations for that one—but is currently awaiting approval for the Carolina parakeet and the heath hen in Florida and Massachusetts’s Martha’s Vineyard, respectively.
Locating each bird sculpture at the last spot it was seen, McGrain feels, is important to reintroducing them into the public’s consciousness. So is touring with them as a group, along with two-dimensional paintings of each species and narratives telling their story (a full set is slated for a park appearance in June in Portland, Oregon). McGrain is also working on a film that will share the birds’ histories, thereby anchoring them to their memorials.
Such efforts are designed not only to revive the birds’ history, however, but to stir audiences to consider other creatures that are gone forever—and, perhaps most important, to emphasize the urgency of working to prevent future extinctions. “We need to remember these birds till they become symbols,” says McGrain. “Otherwise there’s just a callousness to a forgetting that we can’t afford.”
The passenger pigeon is arguably already a symbol. An epochal species that once numbered as many as 3 billion to 5 billion, it succumbed to insatiable market demand coupled with habitat loss. With its head pointing to the heavens, McGrain’s rendition seems to acknowledge the lost lives it represents. But its massive, sinuous body is firmly grounded.
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