Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, contests and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Smithsonian displays North America’s lost birds

The specimens of Martha (left) and George (right), the last two Passenger Pigeons, are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History through October 2015. Photo by Liz O’Brien, Smithsonian Libraries

Two new exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., call attention to North American bird species that have been lost to extinction. The exhibits are not to be missed.

Once There Were Billions

The first is “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America,” opening Tuesday, June 24, at the National Museum of Natural History. It tells the story of the last Passenger Pigeon and the disappearance of Great Auk, Carolina Parakeet, and Heath Hen. The exhibit features specimens from the Smithsonian’s archives, including a Great Auk collected in 1834, a Heath Hen collected around 1910, and two Carolina Parakeets.

Most notable are the specimens of the last two known Passenger Pigeons (shown above), both of which lived at the Cincinnati Zoo: George, the last male, and Martha, a female that was the last of her species. George died in the summer of 1911; Martha breathed her last on September 1, 1914 — a century ago.

OTWB-Header-300“Once There Were Billions” will also display several books, including The Birds of America: From Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories by John James Audubon (1840–44), and two cookbooks that contain pigeon recipes: Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book by Sarah Tyson Heston Rorer (1886) and Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book by Mary J. Lincoln (1904).

A free public lecture and book signing by Joel Greenberg, author of the acclaimed A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, will accompany the exhibition’s opening June 24. Greenberg co-wrote “Like Meteors from Heaven,” an article about the pigeon published in the February 2014 issue of BirdWatching.

Additional programs include a lecture and film screening of From Billions to None by producers Dave Mrazek and Greenberg on September 22 and a lecture titled “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds” with a book signing by author Christopher Cokinos on October 28. All programs begin at 6 p.m. in the Baird Auditorium of the National Museum of Natural History and are free and open to the public.

“Once There Were Billions” will be on display through October 2015.

This Carolina Parakeet sculpture is on display in the Smithsonian Gardens in Washington, D.C. Photo by Todd McGrain

The Lost Bird Project

The second exhibit, “The Lost Bird Project,” features six-foot bronze sculptures of Carolina Parakeet, Labrador Duck, Great Auk, Heath Hen, and Passenger Pigeon. They were created by artist Todd McGrain and are displayed in the Smithsonian Gardens.

“The project started with me putting my hands into a bucket of clay and beginning to form out shapes,” McGrain says. “I became interested in these particular birds because of the beauty of their form. After coming across the stories of the birds, the sculptures took on new meaning and became memorials.

“The sculptures are as large as humans, and that parity encourages a sympathy as people approach them — they are undeniable,” he says. “These birds are not commonly known, and they ought to be, because forgetting is another kind of extinction.”

Labrador Duck sculpture at the Smithsonian. Photo by Todd McGrain
Labrador Duck sculpture at the Smithsonian. Photo by Todd McGrain

The sculptures are not naturalistic works of biological detail. McGrain’s intention was to create shapes that convey the presence of the birds, to remind us of their absence, as subtle and hopeful reminders. Visitors viewing the sculptures are encouraged to touch them.

Todd McGrain
Todd McGrain

“Touch is literally the way we come in contact with the world,” he says. “I hope viewers will come upon them unexpectedly, enjoy their form, and inspire them to make the effort to learn more about these lost birds.”

McGrain’s Passenger Pigeon sculpture has been given to the Smithsonian for permanent display. It is located in the Urban Habitat Garden at the National Museum of Natural History. The four other sculptures are installed in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, a 4.2-acre public rooftop garden between the Smithsonian Castle and Independence Avenue. They will be on view through March 15, 2015.

You don’t have to visit our nation’s capital to see McGrain’s birds, however. Permanent installations of select birds are at the Coastal Discovery Museum in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and at the Harley School and the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York. And five sculptures are placed as memorials near where each species was last seen in the wild:

•    Carolina Parakeet: Kissimmee Prairie Preserve in Okeechobee, Florida

•    Heath Hen: Manuel F. Correllus State Forest on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

•    Great Auk: Fogo Island, Newfoundland

•    Labrador Duck: Brand Park in Elmira, New York

•    Passenger Pigeon: Grange Insurance Audubon Center in Columbus, Ohio

Great Auk sculpture at the Smithsonian. Photo by Todd McGrain
Great Auk sculpture at the Smithsonian. Photo by Todd McGrain

This summer through spring 2015, the sculptures will also be displayed at five locations around the country:

John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Audubon, Pennsylvania. On view now through early 2015. Sculptures placed throughout the 175 acres of the sanctuary.

National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. On view now.

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago. Outside on the museum grounds.

Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California. On the grounds overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin. Three of McGrain’s sculptures and one drawing will be featured in the upcoming Birds in Art 2014 exhibit, September 6 through November 16.

McGrain’s work and his quest to place his sculptures as memorials are the subject of the documentary film The Lost Bird Project. A screening of the film and a lecture and book signing by McGrain will be held on November 20 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. It is free and open to the public. — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor

Originally Published

Read our newsletter!

Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, attracting and ID tips, and more delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up for Free