Conservation: The Lost Bird Project

This may be old news to many of you. I recently was searching for a short documentary on birds to show at my bird club’s annual movie night. Not many documentaries are only 60 minutes long, although lots of great TV shows hit that mark. So I was happy to find a video that lasted only 58 minutes. And I looked into the subject matter.

Which birds from North America that have gone extinct would you like to see brought back? Like me, you may only be aware of a couple of such species. The Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet are the ones general known, but the Lost Bird Project looks at 5 such species. Besides the two I’ve named, the artist includes the Labrador Duck, the Great Auk, and the Heath Hen.

022419 sculpture of heath hen

Yes, artist, not conservationist. Obviously it’s too late to save these named birds. But Todd McGrain, a sculptor and Cornell University art professor, wanted to place memorials to these birds in the places where they were last seen in the wild. The heart of the project is that art touches people in deeper ways than statistics or information. The video is the story of what McGrain and his brother-in-law, Andy, experienced as they traveled to these last spots, went through legal channels to install the sculptures, and spoke with the public about the loss of these bits of our biodiversity.

There’s nothing to indicate that the impact of these monuments led to the Revive&Restore project to reintroduce the Heath Hen to Martha’s Vineyard through de-extinction. These birds were integral to the natural health of the sandplain on the island and specially evolved to survive in the small groups divided from the mainland flocks of prairie chickens. The last living Heath Hen was actually a male, Booming Ben, who spent his final years attempting to attract females that no longer existed.

Called the Original Penguin, the Great Auk had the misfortune to be tasty and have interesting feathers. Once plentiful across the North Atlantic, the bird could not fly and waddled on land, making it an easy target. Their swimming speed was not equal to the men in boats chasing them down. Great Auks had recovered from hunting by polar bears during the Little Ice Age yet Man delivered the final blow from which the birds could not recover. Even if the last birds had not been killed, their numbers were already so depleted there wasn’t much hope for their future. Even the preserved specimens around the world are less than. Could these ever be made de-extinct? Revive&Restore thinks they can be.

Without ornithologist Glenn Chilton’s book, The Curse of the Labrador Duck: My Obsessive Quest to the Edge of Extinction, many people would not even know the bird ever existed. Also known as the Pied Duck, this bird went extinct in the late 1800s, according to reports. However, some scientists and ornithologists now believe the Labrador was a hybrid of two Eider ducks that decided to stop messing around and stick to their own kind. There is a beautiful painting by John James Audubon of the pied duck, but it wouldn’t be the first time a hybrid was drawn and classified by him as a separate species.

However all these situations work out, the video promises to be worth watching. I have in the past written about the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet, so I will end here with a hope for a better future for all our surviving species of any animal. Thanks for reading, I’ll be back next Sunday.

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