Films about Passenger Pigeon and other extinct birds are a call to action

8/26/2014 | 1

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A new documentary shows a computer-generated recreation of a flock of Passenger Pigeons passing overhead, casting the landscape in darkness. Courtesy From Billions to None

Just in time for September 1 — the 100th anniversary of the tragic extinction of the Passenger Pigeon — come two terrific one-hour documentaries that I wholeheartedly recommend. One is about the loss of the pigeon. The other is about an artist who memorializes it and other extinct species in bronze. They are well-produced, compelling, and beautiful films, and taken together, they are a call to action for birders and anyone else who values the natural world. I’ll talk about the Passenger Pigeon documentary first.

From Billions to None

Joel Greenberg

Joel Greenberg

From Billions to None tells the story of the pigeon’s demise from billions of birds in the 1800s to the death of Martha, the last individual, in 1914. The film follows Joel Greenberg, author of the acclaimed book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsburg) and our February 2014 feature story Like Meteors from Heaven, in his ongoing work to raise awareness about the bird through Project Passenger Pigeon.

The visual highlight, in a film that is full of gorgeous cinematography, is a nearly one-minute-long CGI recreation of an immense pigeon flock passing overhead. The stunning sequence is paired with a narrator’s reading of John James Audubon’s description of a flock he witnessed in Kentucky in 1813, a river of birds that took three days to pass. After 30 seconds, I felt claustrophobic; I can’t imagine a flight of three hours, much less three days.

Director David Mrazek interviews Greenberg and tags along as he visits a natural area in Wisconsin, where the largest known pigeon nesting occurred, and Cincinnati, where wildlife artist John Ruthven and a team of painters created a mural (below) depicting Martha and other pigeons on the side of a six-story building. (We included the painting on page 20 of our February issue.)

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John Ruthven’s painting depicting Martha and a flock of Passenger Pigeons appears on the side of a building in Cincinnati. Courtesy From Billions to None

We also hear from ecologists and conservationists, including Stanley Temple of the University of Wisconsin and David Blockstein of the National Council for Science and the Environment. They make two critical points:

• People drove the pigeon to extinction, and we are threatening to do likewise to many other species, especially fish and sharks. (I was particularly shocked to learn that we are killing 100 million sharks per year in part due to the large demand for shark-fin soup.)

• Extinction is not inevitable, and in fact, endangered species can be rehabilitated. Decades ago, for example, Sandhill Crane numbers in the Midwest were precipitously low, but today the bird is the world’s most abundant crane species.

From Billions to None argues that the pigeon’s story is not about the past. As Greenberg says, it is “a cautionary tale to the proposition that no matter how common something is — water, oil, something alive — if we’re not careful with it, we can lose it.”

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Todd McGrain’s Heath Hen sculpture overlooks a field on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where the species went extinct. Courtesy The Lost Bird Project

The Lost Bird Project

Sculptor Todd McGrain would certainly agree that the pigeon’s story is an important one in 2014. For the last 10 years, McGrain has created six-foot bronze statues of five extinct North American species: Passenger Pigeon, Heath Hen, Carolina Parakeet, Labrador Duck, and Great Auk. He decided early on that the sculptures would not be complete until they could be seen and touched, so that people would learn the birds’ stories. Today the works are on display in Chicago, Hilton Head, South Carolina, Big Sur, California, and other locations, including, as we reported in June, at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Todd McGrain

Todd McGrain

McGrain calls his work The Lost Bird Project. In the film of the same name, we see him as he reaches into a bucket of clay to make a sculpture, form it by hand, and eventually walk beside it as a forklift carries it out of a foundry.

He was inspired by the book Hope Is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds by Christopher Cokinos, first published in 2000 and reissued in 2009. In fact, Cokinos narrates the film. In his book, he wrote:

“Within the span of my life, up to one fifth of the species on this planet will likely be gone. Extinction is more than just an environmental fact — each species lost is another thread pulled from the tapestry of life.”

McGrain determines that one way to educate people about extinct species is to place his sculptures near the locations where the birds were last seen in the wild. Director Deborah Dickson’s film tells the story of how McGrain and his brother-in-law and Lost Bird Project partner Andy Stern decide where to place the sculptures and the occasional hurdles they meet along the way.

The pair visit the spot in Pike County, Ohio, where in March 1900, a farm boy is said to have shot the last wild Passenger Pigeon. However, the site is near railroad tracks and is too remote to place the sculpture, so they decide to install it instead at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center in downtown Columbus, within Scioto Audubon Metro Park (Hotspot Near You No. 73).

See a map showing the locations of all five sculptures.

Tom Chase, the Nature Conservancy’s director of conservation strategies in Massachusetts, tells McGrain that his work is important “because it’s reintroducing story into the social memory of the landscape.” As I see it, that is the takeaway from both of these films.

A call to action

A notion expressed in From Billions to None by Garrie Landry, a biologist from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, stopped me short. He says, “The average North American doesn’t know what a Passenger Pigeon is by any means. If anything, they mistake it for the common homing pigeon or a carrier pigeon.”

The same sentiment appears in The Lost Bird Project. While visiting Florida to scout locations for the bronze Carolina Parakeet, McGrain and Stern talk about the fact that no one knows about the parakeet, the only native parrot species of the United States, but we all know the Dodo.

The lesson I took away from the two films is that we birdwatchers have to share the stories of our lost birds with anyone and everyone who will listen. That means: Watch the films and show them to your friends, take your parents to the Smithsonian to see McGrain’s sculptures, attend a Project Passenger Pigeon event, and buy Greenberg’s book and ask a high-school biology teacher to assign it as mandatory reading. No idea is too crazy. Let’s get started, because time is not on our side. — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor

See the films

From Billions to None will be shown on several PBS stations this fall. Check local listings. A screening will be held at the Smithsonian’s Baird Museum on September 22. It’s also available on DVD.

The Lost Bird Project will be screened in a handful of cities in the next month. Check the schedule. It will also be shown at the Smithsonian’s Baird Museum on November 20. Also available on DVD.