Stanford University is home to many bird species, but passenger pigeons, Labrador ducks, Carolina parakeets, great auks and heath hens are not usually among them. For one thing, they've all been extinct for many years. Though these vanished species are no longer flying or swimming free, current visitors to the campus arts district can have an encounter of sorts with them, in the form of artist Todd McGrain's large-scale bronze sculptures — a touching and thought-provoking memorial to the "Lost Birds."
Each avian's tragic tale is unique, but all five were North American species wiped out in recent history, in the 19th or early 20th centuries, due to human activity. Flocks of passenger pigeons once moved in such huge numbers that they darkened the skies as they passed overhead, until they were slaughtered en masse to feed America's rapidly growing population. Carolina parakeets owe part of their downfall to the desire for colorful feathers to decorate fashionable hats, among other factors. Labrador ducks were likely doomed due to habitat and food-source destruction, while the flightless great auks were an easy target for overhunting when nesting on land. The story of the heath hen is especially poignant, as by the time the birds' numbers had dwindled catastrophically, a nascent wildlife conservation movement tried to save them, but it was too little, too late. "Booming Ben," the last, lonely member of his species, called out for a mate to no avail for several years before dying, presumably broken-hearted, on Martha's Vineyard in 1932.
The "Lost Birds" currently in residence at Stanford are the touring members of McGrain's "Lost Bird Project," an ongoing effort to pay tribute to and raise awareness of these extinct creatures through art. McGrain's first casts of the sculptures have been installed in the locations close to where each bird was last seen in the wild, and his quest to place them there is chronicled in the 2013 documentary "The Lost Bird Project." The film received a public screening by Stanford Live on Feb. 24, with McGrain and composer Christoper Tin in attendance.
Tin, a graduate of Palo Alto High School and Stanford, first connected with McGrain when scoring the documentary. He said at the Feb. 24 event that the work has held a special place in his heart over the years; his now-wife even walked down the aisle to the score's main theme. "Music, for me, comes from an emotional spot," he noted. Inspired and saddened by the birds' stories, as well as increasingly concerned about human-caused environmental destruction and species collapse, Tin decided he needed to keep going with the project.
"I wanted to continue writing on this topic because it moved me," he told the at-capacity crowd during a post-screening Q&A, with at least one audience member noting that they'd been brought to tears by what they learned during the evening.
Last autumn, Tin released an expanded album version of "The Lost Birds," recorded at the renowned Abbey Road Studios with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and British vocal group Voces8, which was recently nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Classical Compendium. He led Voces8 in a live, sold-out premiere performance of the piece at Stanford on Feb. 25.
The music he said, is in the tradition of the requiem (a musical memorial mass for the dead) and takes influence from the styles popular in the era during which the birds went extinct.
Bringing the installation, film and concert to Stanford has been a joint effort by the Anderson Collection, the Stanford Office of the Vice President for the Arts, and Stanford Live. Laura Evans, director of music programs, education and engagement for Stanford Live, called the day the bird sculptures arrived on campus one of the most exciting she'd ever had at work.
Stanford University is, after all, a campus founded on loss, grief, and memorializing (as seen in Cantor Arts Center's ongoing exhibit "The Melancholy Museum,") so it's perhaps an especially fitting tour stop for the birds to make. The five sculptures are scattered throughout the arts district, including near Bing Concert Hall and the Anderson Collection (a map is available online).
Tin sees his and McGrain's connected work on the "Lost Birds" as not only an elegy for what is gone forever, but also an exploration of "what extinction means for our own future through different art mediums," he said. We'll never again see passenger pigeons, Labrador ducks, Carolina parakeets, great auks or heath hens in life, but we must, "The Lost Bird Project" insists, remember them in death.
"Forgetting," as McGrain states in the film, "is another kind of extinction."
We can't change the past but we can learn from it. As viewers and listeners encounter these memorials, perhaps they'll not only mourn what's been lost but also be motivated to help preserve what's left.
The "Lost Birds" will be on view at Stanford through February 2024. More information is available at live.stanford.edu.