History’s flight

The Lost Bird Project by Todd McGrain brings extinct birds to life.


“Please touch!” That’s exactly what we’re encouraged to do with the five larger-than-life sculptures of birds that no longer grace this earth but stand as sentinels of the past on the lawn in front of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Anna Barber, curator of exhibitions, says, “They are there for people to engage with. To touch them. To hug them. Getting your picture taken with them all enhances the opportunity to connect with these birds in a way that you wouldn’t be able to usually do in a museum.”

Todd McGrain started the project in 2000 in order to raise awareness that since the 17th century, more than 150 bird species have gone extinct, the vast majority due to overhunting and human-led habitat loss. The Lost Birds Project comes from his deep desire to memorialize them by placing the sculptures in their last known wild location before extinction, and to engage with the communities about memory, loss, and hope for the protection of the birds that are currently endangered. Since the heath hen became extinct on the Island, having the exhibition here was a natural fit.

We are meant to commune with each work of art, and their smooth surfaces call out for us to run our hands along the cool bronze, feeling their contours as we stand within inches of the impressive creatures. “Touch is our first sense to develop and remains essential throughout our lives,” McGrain writes. But as you feel them, you also begin to notice the live birds all around. Barber notes how ubiquitous they are around the Museum. You can see and hear ospreys, turkeys, geese, red-wing blackbirds, and mockingbirds, among others.

The memorials are not exact replicas but instead are McGrain’s version of how he saw the birds’ personalities. Interacting with each one, we become invested — only to realize it is too late for these fellows.

To the far right, facing the Museum is the towering Great Auk, which looks out over our heads into the distant horizon of yesteryear. The label in the exhibit inside the Museum provides information on each bird. These ungainly-looking birds lived most of their lives at sea, returning to land every spring to the isolated islands of the North Atlantic to mate with their life-long partners. While swift and agile in water, Great Auks were flightless and awkward on land, making them easy targets. As hunters sought their meat, eggs, oil, and feathers, their numbers declined until the last documented pair was killed in 1844.

The long, horizontally oriented sculpture of the Carolina parakeet is elegant with its sweeping tail feathers even without its vibrant green, yellow, and red colors. These parakeets ranged over much of what is now the Eastern United States. As the landscape became more agricultural, the birds flocked to the crops, and farmers shot them in great numbers. Sadly, as a communal species, when one bird died, the rest flew to its side, thus ensuring the demise of many more. Feather hunters, trappers who sold them as pets, and competition from European honeybees for roosting sites depleted their numbers until their extinction in 1918.

It remains a bit of a mystery what led to the demise of the Labrador duck—here standing with its head sweetly tucked — since it wasn’t a popular game bird. It’s possible that habitat loss and diminished populations of shallow-water mollusks, their primary food source, played a role. The last known Labrador duck was shot on Dec. 12, 1878, in Elmira, N.Y., having been blown inland by a huge storm.

It’s hard to fathom that passenger pigeons are no longer with us given that they accounted for an estimated 20 to 40 percent of all land birds in North America. This large one looks heavenward toward the memory of the vast flocks numbering in the millions that sometimes eclipsed the sun for hours. As America’s human population increased so did the demand for wild meat, with hunters slaughtering them into extinction in 1900.

Referring to the statue that’s strutting its stuff, Barber shares, “We have a special part of that story with the once abundant heath hen in that it went extinct on the mainland in 1870, decades before it did here. Hunters killed so many that the government set aside land as a reserve, in 1908, now the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, in the state’s first concentrated effort on bird preservation.” However, the numbers continued to decline. Finally, a disastrous fire and the unfortunate arrival of their predator, the goshawk, ravaged the remaining population. In 1929, only one heath hen — “Booming Ben” — remained, returning each spring to his ancestral breeding ground until 1932, after which he was never seen again. Barber adds, “Even though they’ve disappeared from the landscape, their legacy is still very clear. If you live here, the heath hen is a big part of our history, but also part of a greater story.”

McGrain meticulously studied each bird and its history. Inside the Museum you can see his exquisite, large ink-and-pencil drawings, which bring to mind John James Audubon’s famous “Birds of America” prints, which he greatly admires. They are slightly dreamy, befitting the fact that each avian only exists in memory. There are also small versions of the outdoor sculptures that reflect where the process began for the finished works.

Make sure to take a final look though at the magnificent pieces before you return to your car. McGrain ends his book by saying, “My hope is that those who encounter these memorials experience something similar to what occurs when one sees an unfamiliar bird — a heightened awareness of stirred curiosity.”

“It’s a sad story but it’s one that can be hopeful if we don’t let this happen,” Barber says. “These birds aren’t forgotten. By having a place where they were last seen we have this reminder that we can’t forget.”

Sculptures on view at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum through May 2024. The exhibit is on view through July 30, 2023.