Lost Bird Project aims to remind us what we once had
Lyndon B. Johnson was president the last time anyone saw an Eskimo curlew for certain.
The last confirmed photograph of a curlew in the wild was taken in Galveston in 1963. Although there’s been a handful of other sightings since then, the bird is widely considered extinct.
A tundra bird that would migrate between the Arctic and South America, the long-beaked and brown curlew once existed in the millions. A loss of habitat and the extinction of one of the bird’s favorite prey — the Rocky Mountain locust — devastated populations.
For that reason, the island soon will be home to the bird’s symbolic grave.
A new March exhibit planned for The Bryan Museum in Galveston will honor birds such as the curlew that can no longer be found in North America. The exhibit also will mark the installation of a new island monument dedicated to the curlew at the Galveston Island State Park.
“I think it’s hopeful,” said Julie Ann Brown, executive director of the Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council. “Forgetting is another kind of extinction, and I think by having this sculpture we are reminding folks of what we no longer have.”
Brown has worked for years to bring the art exhibit called the Lost Bird Project to Galveston after seeing a documentary about the installation.
The Lost Bird Project was created in 2008 by artist Todd McGrain. McGrain has sculpted five, 5-foot-tall statues of birds that no longer are found in the wild — the great auk, heath hen, Labrador duck, passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet — and installed them in places near to where they were last seen.
The curlew statue will be the sixth such statue.
When the curlew statue is installed on the island’s West End, replicas of the other five bird statues will be placed on the grounds of The Bryan Museum, 1315 21st St., as part of a temporary exhibit. The museum is dedicated to the American West and Texas history, but an exhibit dedicated to the state’s natural legacy fits well into that mission, museum officials said.
“It’s this environment, the coast, that really created the state,” said Jordan Price, the museum’s director of marketing and membership. “Galveston was the second largest point of immigration, after Ellis island, which is something that you never really think about. You had millions of families come to the U.S. from Europe through Galveston. It was this environment that they came across, and birds were very much a part of that.”
There are more than six North American bird species that are extinct or face extinction.
Last year, Cornell University and the American Bird Conservancy published a study stating the North American bird population has fallen by 29 percent since 1970. There are 3 billion fewer birds on the continent than there were 50 years ago, according to the study’s authors.
The study blamed a variety of factors for the loss, including habitat loss to expansion of farmland, use of pesticides that kill birds’ food sources, light pollution that confuse birds and cause them to crash into buildings and cats that run wild, or are allowed to roam, and kill birds with impunity.
Among the other extinct birds are the seaside sparrow, Bachman’s warbler and the ivory-billed woodpecker. There are least 77 other species in the United States that are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The hope is that the new mark and the museum exhibit in Galveston will help convince people who live and visit the island to work harder to come up with ideas to preserve bird populations, Brown said.
“If we can give some takeaways about how we can prevent extinction in the future, to me that’s a hopeful message because this is something we can do something about,” Brown said.
The Lost Bird Project exhibit will be at The Bryan Museum, 1315 21st St., from March 29 until Sept. 13. Because the exhibit is outside and on the museum’s grounds, it will be free to the public.
Ways to prevent bird extinction
Bird populations are on the decline in North America, but the cause can’t be attributed to a single reason. Julie Ann Brown, the executive director of the Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council, has five suggestions about ways to reduce bird deaths:
• Keep cats indoors. Every year domestic cats kill up to 3.7 billion birds.
• Set up bird feeders and bird baths in your yard. Plus, birds are fun to watch.
• Plant native plants in your yard. Even small native gardens help to reverse the loss of urban biodiversity.
• Cut back on plastic use. Plastic often ends up in the ocean killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds, turtles and marine mammals each year.
• Forgo pesticides. It’s estimated that agricultural use kills 67 million birds each year.