Saturday, June 23, 2012

Living in the Age of Extinction: The Lost Bird Project

lost bird project, great auk, extinction, biodiversity, todd mcgrain
The Great Auk sculpture on Fogo Island , photo by The Lost Bird Project
We live in an age of extinction. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in the last 500 years, human activity is known to have forced 869 species to extinction. This is a rate that is 1000 to 10,000 times greater than the normal background extinction rate seen in the fossil record. 

Paul Ehrlich has compared biodiversity or species loss to popping the rivets from an airplane. We don’t know which rivet is going to make the entire airplane fall apart -- we don’t know how many species an ecosystem can lose before it collapses. Ecosystems perform services that humans depend on, from filtering water and air, to providing food, decomposing waste, sequestering carbon, protecting shoreline and so on. As the saying goes :biodiversity is life, it is our life. 

But what about individual species? What does the loss of an individual species mean to us? A marsupial is over-hunted in Australia. A toad disappears in Costa Rica. An ibex vanishes from the Pyrenees, a river dolphin from the Yangtze, a pigeon from the skies North America. Given that the present attitude is still for us to dominate nature and extract its resources for our personal welfare, we tend to ignore what we’re losing in the name of so-called progress. In each case, what we are losing is a survivor whose lineage withstood droughts, floods and competition from other, a work of art that is the product of millions of years of evolution species, a masterpiece of nature. This is an impoverishment of our world, a lost opportunity for us to wonder at something unique and beautiful.

There are books about extinct species, including the spectacular Gap in Nature, by Tim Flannery, with superb illustration by Peter Schouten. There is an online memorial to extinct species called What is Missing, by Maya Lin, which I mentioned before. And on May 22, 2011, a group of citizens in England created the Life Cairn, a memorial for species rendered extinct by human hands – they also created quite a moving video of the event. I like how they summarize the project: All life to carry one life and one life to carry all life.

Finally, in various places in North America, we now have some larger than life memorial sculptures to recently extinct birds, thanks to artist Todd McGrain and his Lost Bird Project. From their webpage, The Lost Bird Project “recognizes the tragedy of modern extinction by immortalizing North American birds that have been driven to extinction.”

todd mcgrain, lost bird project, extinction, heath hen
Todd McGrain in his studio, photo by The Lost Bird Project
North America used to have the Passenger Pigeon, a bird that flew in flocks vast enough to eclipse the sun for hours or even days at a time; the Carolina Parakeet, a bird with striking green plumage and a yellow head that lit up winter trees like candles; the Labrador Duck, which was wiped out before anyone recorded the sound of its call; the Heath Hen, whose males boomed and pounded the Earth to attract mates; and the Great Auk, a seabird who was a swift and agile swimmer that mated for life. All of these birds, except the Labrador Duck, were hunted to extinction. The cause of the extinction of the Labrador Duck is unknown: its eggs may have been over-harvested or the cause may be related to the decline of shellfish as population grew along the Eastern seaboard.
McGrain has spent the last few years creating bronze sculptures for each of these birds and they’ve been installed in places directly related to each bird’s decline. The bronze, of course, means they were created to last, but also to be touched. He describes them as “subtle, hopeful reminders…As a group they are melancholy, yet affirming. They compel us to recognize the finality of our loss, they ask us not to forget, and they remind us of our duty to prevent further extinction."

labrador duck, todd mcgrain, lost bird project, extinction, biodiversity
Labrador Duck, photo by The Lost
Bird Project
On the tree of life, the branches of the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet have been cut. In the biosphere, there are now holes shaped like the Great Auk and Heath Hen. In all our technology, there's not a single recording of the call of the Labrador Duck. In a sense, it would have been more appropriate to have installed the moulds at the locations rather than the sculptures so that we could contemplate the shadows that these birds have cast upon us. Perhaps that's too negative a message for public art? Instead they are solid, smooth, tactile, reverent.

I think it’s an ambitious and enormously important project. Not only because, as McGrain says, “forgetting is also a kind of extinction” and these memorials rescue them to our memory, but also because we as a species need to be reminded of the enormous influence we wield on the world around us. The memorials need to be visited and discussed, the stories of these birds needs to be told and shared. These birds still have much to teach us about how we live and the repercussions of our actions.

It's bewildering to think that the formerly enormous populations of these birds were each wiped out in a matter of decades, due, in four of five cases, to over-hunting. In writing about the demise of the Passenger Pigeon, Aldo Leopold wrote, "For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun." This is the age of extinction. McGrain, like Leopold, correctly noted that we need a place to properly channel our grief for these lost species. These memorials are new things under the sun and their message is important -- if we're willing to hear it.

You can find out more about The Lost Bird Project by taking in the documentary, directed by Deborah Dickson, whose trailer is below. 


  1. Great post - very thought-provoking. Amidst all the debate about global warming and scientific reasons to act (or not to act) to protect our world, we all too often miss the moral imperative to preserve species. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Simon. I went to your blog; it reminded me of my own enjoyable time of biking and hiking about in Romania in 1999. Fond memories.