Artist's 'Lost Bird Project' reanimates extinct species

When sculptor Todd McGrain began driving cross-country to research extinct North American birds 15 years ago, he didn't have to travel far. In Elmira, N.Y., just 45 minutes from his hometown, McGrain discovered the last-known whereabouts of the Labrador duck, an Atlantic Coast sea bird that perished in 1878 after a boy hunting for wild game shot the last one.

"I had no idea the Labrador had a connection to my home," says McGrain, who memorialized the Labrador by creating a 6-foot-tall bronze sculpture of the vanished bird. So began "The Lost Bird Project," five sleek, black sculptures of a Labrador duck, a Carolina parakeet, a heath hen, a great auk and a passenger pigeon. The birds dwelled in North America, but overhunting and pollution drove them to extinction, McGrain says.

On Thursday, Jan. 12, McGrain's bronze birds will land at Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in West Palm Beach for his traveling "Lost Bird Project." The first vanished species to greet visitors is the passenger pigeon, a scruffy migratory bird perched on the garden's front lawn, while the other four frame the sculpture gardens' reflecting pool. McGrain also designed the birds, which weigh between 500 and 800 pounds apiece, to stand as tall as humans to inspire empathy, he says.

"I made them human-scale so you have a physical sympathy to the form," says McGrain, an artist-in-residence in the Lab of Ornithology at New York's Cornell University. "It's a relatable form: They're too big to possess, but not so so big as to dominate them."

McGrain set about installing his sculptures in areas around the country where the species were last spotted. His idea spawned a 2010 road-trip documentary, also titled "The Lost Bird Project," in which he traveled the country with his brother-in-law, University of Rochester neurologist Andy Stern. They consulted with biologists and ornithologists from the National Audubon Society, visited state and national parks and persuaded city officials to let him display his memorials. .

"People love going to places where birds were last seen, so I wanted to create memorials and markers," McGrain says. "If you don't know the tragic history behind a lost species, you won't know to miss them, and you're less likely to preserve what species we still have."

McGrain uncovered fascinating anecdotes behind the lives and deaths of the birds. At the Cincinnati Zoo, McGrain learned about Martha and George (named after George and Martha Washington), the last two passenger pigeons, who gained some celebrity before dying in captivity in 1914. He also met with Paul Miller, a biologist at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park in Okeechobee, one of the last known locations of the Carolina parakeet. Driven to extinction in 1918 by feather hunters and trappers, the rainbow-plumaged parrot once flew in massive flocks and raided fruit orchards along the Mexico border east to South Florida.

"They were more like flying monkeys than they were birds," says McGrain, who will display drawings and historical photographs of the birds with his installation. "They were bright green and red and yellow and very loud, a gorgeous parrot. South Florida would have just been animated by Carolina parakeets."

Since installing his original sculptures in Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park and elsewhere across the country, McGrain has cast similar versions of the birds for traveling exhibits. He's so far displayed them at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the John James Audubon Center in Pennsylvania.

"The Lost Bird Project" will open Thursday, Jan. 12, at Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, 253 Barcelona Road, in West Palm Beach. The exhibit, closing June 28, will include a noon Jan. 12 artist talk with Todd McGrain. Admission costs $7-$15. Call 561-832-5328 or go to ANSG.org.

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