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How we lost the Passenger Pigeon and other birds

Photo s courtesy of ‘The Lost Bird Project’
The Great Auk gazes out to sea on island off the coast of Newfoundland.

 

In his New York studio, Todd McGrain works on models of the extinct birds. Clay figures, in varying sizes, mark the beginning of the sculpting process.

 

By Karen Zautyk

Observer Correspondent

LYNDHURST -

In 1800, the Passenger Pigeon was considered “the most abundant land bird on Earth.” An estimated 3 to 5 billion populated North America.

They migrated in massive flocks that stretched more than 200 miles. Flying at speeds of up to 60 mph, a flock could take two to three days to pass over a settlement. The skies would grow dark with pigeons.

John James Audubon compared it to an eclipse.

A century later, they were all gone. All those billions.

Hunted to extinction. The last recorded wild Passenger Pigeon was shot in Pike County, Ohio, on March 24, 1900; in 1914, the last captive one died in its cage at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The extinction had been unthinkable, but it happened. A lesson to humankind — and yet to be learned by far too many people.

Now, a new documentary, “The Lost Bird Project,” seeks to teach us a bit more about the fragility of nature.

The film was screened last Thursday evening at the New Jearsey Meadowlands Commission’s Environment Center in DeKorte Park, with the viewing co-sponsored by the Bergen County Audubon Society and Ramapo College.

The movie details the efforts of one artist — sculptor and retired Cornell University professor Todd McGrain — to memorialize five “lost birds” of North America.

Along with the Passenger Pigeon, these are the Great Auk (extinct in 1844), Labrador Duck (1878), Carolina Parakeet (1918) and Heath Hen (1932).

The Heath Hen lasted the longest because 20th century environmentalists, realizing the species was in danger, extablished a preserve on Martha’s Vineyard in hopes of saving the birds. That preserve is now part of a state forest, and, today, in it stands an extraordinary, 6-foot- tall, stylized bronze statue of a Heath Hen.

Over a span of 10 years, McGrain created one statue for each of the aforementioned species. Then, along with his brother-in-law and the film’s executive producer, Andy Stern, he sought to have them placed at or near the last spot where the last bird of each species was seen in the wild.

This was not an easy task. The movie details McGrain and Stern’s travels as they seek government and community approval for the installations.

Finally, all had homes.

The Carolina Parakeet memorial is at the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve in Okeechobee, Fla.; the Great Auk, on Fogo Island, Newfoundland; the Labrador Duck, in Brand Park, Elmira, N.Y.; and the Passenger Pigeon, at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center in Columbus, Ohio.

As the film’s website (lostbirdproject. org) notes, the size, the “human scale,” of the sculptures is designed to “elicit a physical sympathy” for the extinct species from members of our own.

In McGrain’s words, “These birds are not commonly known and they ought to be, because forgetting is another kind of extinction.”

“The Lost Bird Project” also tells the tragic, and compelling, stories of how each species became extinct.

Some were hunted for meat; some for their feathers.

Habitat destruction played a role.

McGrain summed it up: “The extinction of the five was caused by callous human behavior.”

The Carolina Parakeet, alas, was partly a victim of its own noncallous behavior. When one of the birds was shot, the film notes, “the flock would come closer, choosing to be near to its fallen flockmate.” And making all its members easier targets.

The story of the Heath Hen (the males were called “hens,” too) was also especially sad. These birds had a “booming” mating call, and the final survivor had been known affectionately as “Booming Ben.” After “years of aloneness,” the last time he was seen, he was perched in the top of a tree at the Massachusetts preserve, calling out in vain for his mate. It was, as described in the movie, “a call into oblivion.”

“The Lost Bird Project” is heart-wrenching, educational, poetic and profound — with some humor there, too. It is mesmerizing. This writer hopes it will be picked up and aired by a TV network, to get the widest viewing audience possible.

As we noted, there are still lessons to be learned by humans. Said McGrain, “We are a destructive force.”

And regarding the lost birds, we quote from a poem read in the film: “They live forever by not living at all.”

If we continue to remember them.

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