Sculptor works to memorialize birds lost to extinction
The Eskimo curlew, an elegant shorebird, was last seen on Galveston Island in the early 1960s.
Now probably extinct, it joins the Labrador duck, the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, the great auk and the heath hen — all North American birds that were once abundant and are now forever lost.
“These birds did not vanish because a meteorite hit the Earth or because they were slow or unsuited to their environment,” said sculptor Todd McGrain, who, with Andrew Stern, has set out to memorialize birds lost to extinction. “They were lost in the 19th and 20th century because of humans.”
This year’s FeatherFest, the six-day birding festival from April 17-22 in Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula, is dedicated to the memory of the Eskimo curlew, and will feature a film about McGrain and Stern’s The Lost Bird Project.
There is something to be gained by remembering the loss.
The Lost Bird Project works with local communities to place large, bronze sculptures of the extinct birds as a memorial. Sculptures are placed as near as possible to the site where the species was last seen.
“Forgetting that these birds ever existed is another kind of extinction,” McGrain said. “Forgetting is easy. It takes real work to remember that there once was an Eskimo curlew. It takes real work to preserve habitat, raise awareness and mitigate the factors that adversely affect bird populations.”
The first five memorials are already in place in New York, Newfoundland, Florida, Massachusetts and Ohio. The sixth might be placed in Galveston, depending on community support and whether fundraising is successful.
A documentary of the process, “The Lost Bird Project,” has aired on public television and it will be shown at the 2018 FeatherFest in Galveston. The showing is free and open to the public.
McGrain will be present to talk about The Lost Bird Project and the possible placement of a memorial for the Eskimo curlew. He has been a sculptor for 25 years and has won grants and awards, including the Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship.
The memorial sculptures look like blue-black polished stone depicting the essence of the lost birds.
They are made by transforming the original form in clay to wax. When the wax burns away, there’s a mold to receive the bronze. The blue-black color is made by heating the sculpture and spraying chemicals on it to cause oxidation. It takes many layers to reach the deep blue-black.
“The idea didn’t come to me all at once,” McGrain said. “It evolved in a pretty organic way.”
“It’s the evolution of my years as a sculptor, of caring about the natural environment and being a birder. I was interested in abstractions based on animal forms, including the Labrador duck. I read Chris Cokinos’ book, ‘Hope is the Thing With Feathers,’ and that was an inspiration to me.”
When he returned to the studio, it was natural to create a memorial. Initially, he hoped to place the sculptures in locations for a year, but his friend and brother-in-law, environmentalist and professor Andrew Stern, suggested they make the memorials permanent.
“Sculptures invite participation,” McGrain said. “These memorials are a kind of touchstone to raise awareness and promote action. It’s a way to remind us of how precious our natural resources are.”
The artist has been surprised by the expanding nature of the project.
“It’s been wonderful to see how communities become involved,” he said. “It’s a beautiful sculpture, a centerpiece for the community and it’s part of the natural puzzle that is now missing. They compel us to recognize the finality of our loss, they ask us not to forget, and they remind us of our duty to prevent further extinction.”