When I was recently traveling in Switzerland, I was awed by the swirling flocks of starlings. Randomly, they came pouring out of trees in great wheels, winding and splitting around power lines, looping over Lake Geneva. Starlings make a pretty awful racket up close, something like an ungreased machine screeching and writhing. But in flight they inspire quiet and awe.
You don’t see flocks like that anymore in North America, but they once weren’t uncommon. In the 19th century, passenger pigeons alone could darken the sky in their great flights. At one point they numbered about 40 percent of the wild birds on our continent. Over about 50 years they were slaughtered in great numbers for their meat, and in 1900, the last wild bird was shot by a young boy in Ohio. The last passenger pigeon died in captivity in the Cincinnati zoo in 1914.
Sculptor Todd McGrain has been on a mission to memorialize the passenger pigeon, and four other species of birds that have disappeared, mostly at the hand of humankind, during the past two centuries. He says, “Preventing absent-mindedness when it comes to extinction is what I’m trying to do.”
“… I read the German immigrant’s letter about a leafless tree in Minnesota, covered in Carolina parakeets and conjuring a memory of a Christmas tree from the old country, I thought, how could this be a story that I don’t know?”
A profile of the five birds memorialized in the project is here. They’re worth a read – the careless and downright aggressiveness that led to the extinction of many is shameful, but not all of them were directly slaughtered into distinction. The post notes that the Labrador Duck may have been endangered by the over-harvesting of mussels and other shallow-water mollusks. All of the stories of their ends were sad, but this one about the last days of the Heath Hen stuck out:
Numbering in the 100’s, the survivors lived on Martha’s Vineyard. Over the next quarter of a century, the state of Massachusetts attempted to save them: enacting a hunting ban, shooting predatory animals, planting crops to feed the hens, and establishing a reserve in 1908. But numbers continued to diminish. A disastrous fire and the unfortunate arrival of goshawks, a serious Heath Hen predator, ravaged the remaining population.
Heath Hens usually flew only to the lower branches of trees. But in 1929 ornithologists witnessed a hopeful male fly to the top of a tree and call out, loud and repeatedly, across the island. There were no Heath Hens to hear his plea. He was last seen on March 11, 1932.
Filmmaker Deborah Dickerson has made a film documenting McGrain’s project to memorialize the birds in the locations where they were last seen. Hopefully this will be coming somewhere near you (or at least me) sometime soon.