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Around the Lab

In the Presence of Absence

article spread
by Pat Leonard

Five extinct birds stand frozen in bronze at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Morgens Observatory. Collectively titled the “Lost Bird Project,” the sculptures were created by Todd McGrain, an associate professor of art at Cornell University. The smooth, sinuous shapes create a solid presence out of absence and a memorial out of memory.

“Memory of the past exists in the present,” says McGrain. “Keeping the loss present has guided this project from the beginning.”

McGrain conceived of the Lost Bird Project after reading stories about extinct North American birds.

“I read accounts about immense flocks of migrating Passenger Pigeons that blackened the skies for days; flocks of colorful Carolina Parakeets that made bare branches look like decorated Christmas trees,” McGrain says. “The stories of slaughter are appalling and a clear example of waste and greed. It’s difficult to read those stories and not conclude we’re missing something by not having these birds anymore.”

McGrain felt a need to tell these stories. He chose the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Heath Hen, Great Auk, and Labrador Duck as his subjects.

“They have real character,” McGrain says. “The Great Auk was an incredible bird—of all of them, that is the one I would most like to see.”

The artist spent five years on the project—studying details of form from stuffed specimens, written descriptions, and artwork. He created small clay models, then graduated to larger-than-life scale as he achieved a shape, position, and surface he liked for each bird.

“These smooth surfaces ask to be touched,” says McGrain. “Touch is a very direct way to bring something close—to make the thing present to us, even though it is gone.”

The final bronze sculptures were cast using the “lost-wax” technique. Thin wax forms of the birds were covered with plaster inside and out, making a mold. The wax was then melted away and molten metal was poured into the mold. These are the largest castings McGrain has ever done. The birds weigh from 400 to 700 pounds each and stand six feet tall.

The exhibit includes paintings of each species along with its story of extinction. McGrain considers these two-dimensional renditions a nice counterbalance to the three-dimensional sculptures.

One set of the bronze birds will be a traveling exhibit. Others will be placed as memorials in places where each species was last seen—from Iceland to Italy, and Ohio to New York.

McGrain also has a factual take-away message for visitors: “I would like everyone to leave this exhibit knowing something about the decline of these birds and to realize that it was because of us—we drove them to extinction. It didn’t have to happen. I’m ultimately hoping to join the efforts being made by many artists and conservationists in helping to prevent a kind of absent-mindedness when it comes to extinction.”