The Lost Bird Project
(Rochester, New York) — In the early 19th century, flocks of more than 1 billion Passenger Pigeons — the most abundant bird species on the planet — darkened the skies, sometimes taking three days to pass overhead. By 1900, they were extinct. Moved by the fate of the Passenger Pigeon and four other North American birds driven to extinction in modern times — the Heath Hen, the Carolina Parakeet, the Labrador Duck and the Great Auk — artist Todd McGrain set out to memorialize them. Inspired by Christopher Cokinos’ non-fiction book, Hope Is the Thing With Feathers, The Lost Bird Project, airing Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV, follows McGrain and his brother-in-law, Andy Stern, as they take search for the last-known locations of the birds and seek permission to install McGrain’s six-foot-tall bronze sculptures on those sites. McGrain is a former art professor at Cornell University and a native of Irondequoit. Stern is a neurologist at Neurology Associates- Rochester.
The journey leads the pair from the swamps of Florida, the final roosting ground of the Carolina Parakeet, to a tiny island off the coast of Newfoundland, where some of the last Great Auks made their nests and where the local townspeople still mourn their absence 150 years later. The men spend more than two years scouting locations, talking to park rangers, speaking at town meetings and battling bureaucracy in their effort to gather support for the project.
McGrain's memorials are not naturalistic works of biological detail, but rather personal and palpable representations of the birds' absence. McGrain places these large, evocative bronzes in the contexts where the birds once socialized, courted and fed their young. McGrain’s aim in placing the sculptures is to give presence to the birds where they are now so starkly absent.
“These birds are not commonly known,” McGrain says, “and they ought to be, because forgetting is another kind of extinction. It’s such a thorough erasing.”
An elegy to the five birds, The Lost Bird Project is a thoughtful and sometimes humorous look at the artist and his mission. The Montreal Mirror called the film, “a stunning and evocative work about art, nature and our imperiled planet,” while The Montreal Gazette described it as “entertaining, whimsical … and certainly very moving.”
Credit: Todd McGrain
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