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Written by Blanca Mesa, BT Contributor   
February 2018

Exhibit stirs as a call to help prevent avian extinction

TPix_GoingGreen_2-18_1he Carolina parakeet, Labrador duck, great auk, heath hen, and the passenger pigeon all once belonged to this earth. Now extinct, they inhabit the world only in print or museum collections, or as art, as with bronze sculptures of the “Lost Bird Project,” an exhibit at the Kampong Botanical Garden in Coconut Grove that runs through July.

Artist Todd McGrain created the sculptures to honor the magnificent creatures that have perished in North America. McGrain sculpts so that we remember.

“Forgetting is a callous act,” says McGrain from his home in New York. “My goal is to tell the story of past losses.”

The five sculpted birds, black as night, tall as men, serve as memorials. But they’re also calls to action, says McGrain, reminding us of the fragility of the species that still live.

Paul Reillo, co-director of Florida International University’s Tropical Conservation Institute, brought the sculptures to Miami and found the perfect setting at the Kampong. The nine-acre National Tropical Botanical Garden was the winter home of horticulturist David Fairchild, who dedicated his life to tropical plants. His former house is surrounded by a lush tropical garden and includes a mangrove preserve along the Biscayne Bay shoreline.

“The Kampong is such a wonderful setting for this exhibit,” says Reillo, “because it’s a living space that is also a tribute to people who dedicated their lives to saving nature.”

Reillo is dedicated to saving one particular species at the moment, the Florida grasshopper sparrow, one of the world’s most endangered birds. Only 10 to 15 breeding pairs of grasshopper sparrows exist in the wild. Reillo also has a captive breeding program.

The story of this diminutive bird follows a grim pattern familiar to those who study manmade extinction. First is their loss of habitat -- the central Florida prairies where the sparrow lives were ditched and developed. Cattle grazing altered the vegetation, fence posts provided perches for predators. And now, with their numbers dwindled, disease and climate change are swooping in for the final blow. Altogether, it’s what Reillo calls the extinction vortex.

The grasshopper sparrow is one of eight species of sparrows that once flourished in Florida. Two have become extinct: the Smyrna and dusky seaside sparrow vanished in the 1980s. Now the dwindling sparrow populations, which include the Everglades Cape Sable sparrow, face a new threat, a deadly pathogen that kills the young. It may take a year to determine how to combat it, and Reillo fears he may run out of time. Both the wild birds and captive breeding birds have been exposed to the disease.

“Look at this,” says Reillo of avian survivability. “Don’t turn away. Birds are being driven to extinction because of human activity.”

McGrain’s sculptures are also on display in locales throughout North America where the birds were last seen alive. The Carolina parakeet, for example, is at the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve Park in Okeechobee. Resplendent in life, with its long tail and colorful plumage of yellow and orange with shades of green, its range reached south to the Gulf of Mexico, where it roosted in hollow trees in swamps and forests. As the swamps were drained and forests turned to farmland, the parakeet sought sustenance from farmer’s crops and found death on the fields from farmers who considered them pests.

They were altruistic birds. Flocks would swoop down in support of one fallen parakeet, ensuring their wholesale slaughter. Perhaps they were too beautiful, as well, hunted for their feathers by the millinery trade, and caged as pets. The last wild bird was seen alive in 1910.

At the top of the continent is a sculpture of the great auk, perched on a rock, looking out to sea from an island off the coast of Newfoundland. The great auk was driven to extinction in 1844. The giant, flightless bird spent most of its life at sea. It was an agile, powerful swimmer, capable of diving to great depths. But its vulnerability on land, where it went to breed, doomed it. Humans came in large groups to club the birds and catch them for food, fuel, and feathers beginning in the 1500s. The last population took refuge on a remote island off Iceland. But a volcanic eruption in 1830 displaced the colony. In the end, the last nesting pair were killed by hunters.

“This is on our watch,” says FIU’s Reillo. “It’s profoundly sad to consider these magnificent creatures no longer exist because of us.”

But their stories survive. The sculptures stand tall and strong, somber but not silent, retelling their lives and recalling their deaths as cautionary tales.

Information on the “Lost Bird Project” can be found at www.lostbird.org. Information on the grasshopper sparrow breeding program can be found at www.rarespecies.org.

 

Blanca Mesa writes about the environment, health, and urban development issues. Follow her @blancamesa and subscribe to her blog at www.blancamesa.com.

 

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