Learning about lost birds

Alex Suleski has a passion for birds and for relaying relevant stories to the public. At a recent Outreach event, Alex spoke about the continuation of the Lost Bird Project at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. Here’s what we learned:

Tell me about your role at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center?

As a Conservation Interpreter, my role at Shaver’s Creek largely involves introducing our visitors to all the animals that live here, as well as the opportunities to explore our trails and Lake Perez. Additionally, I run public programs for our visitors on the weekends!

What is the key takeaway that you’d like people to know about the Lost Bird Project?

I think the most important thing people can take away from the Lost Bird Project is the importance of ensuring that we won’t need to memorialize any of our native bird species again. Our native birds play such important roles, not just in the habitats and ecosystems they inhabit, but also in bringing joy to so many people who love to observe them and to hear their songs and calls.

Can you tell us about each of the birds and their associated stories?

The five birds memorialized in sculpture by the project each have unique stories connected by the common thread of their extinction due largely to human influence. The species represented in the project are the Great Auk, Labrador Duck, Passenger Pigeon, Heath Hen, and Carolina Parakeet.

You can learn the incredible history of each bird on the Shaver’s Creek website. We’ve also included Google Map locations on where you’re able to view each of the sculpture locations in our region.

The Great Auk was a flightless bird nearly three feet in height that closely resembled a penguin. Like penguins, it was most agile in the water, where it would hunt mainly fish and crustaceans. Interestingly, the Great Auk was “known to science” before penguins, and its scientific name was Pinguinis impennis. Because of their similarities, when penguins were later found and named, they were named after the Great Auk! It was very popular to use their feathers in pillows, and their overhunting for that use was what largely led to their extinction in 1844.

The Labrador Duck was the first known bird species endemic to (only found in) North America to go extinct. We don’t know as much about the Labrador Duck and the circumstances surrounding its extinction as many of the other species, but it is likely a combination of factors that contributed to the loss of this bird. The explosion of industry and human influence in our coastal regions led to a decline in their habitat, and a decrease in the mollusks they relied on probably played a major role. Over-harvesting of their eggs and hunting for the feather trade may have been factors as well. The last Labrador Duck was sighted in New York in 1878.

The Passenger Pigeon has an incredible story. Once considered the most abundant bird on the continent, it is thought Passenger Pigeons made up around 25% of North America’s bird population. Estimates put their population around 3–5 billion birds, whose flocks would darken the skies for days as they passed over. In such vast numbers, they must have seemed to be an inexhaustible resource, but due to a combination of factors, these birds saw one of the most dramatic population declines of any species. Hunting played a huge role, and in 1878 alone, around one billion birds went to market. Coupled with the habitat loss from the deforestation of much of the East Coast during industrialization, it took merely 30 years from when the effects of human influence were first impacting these birds for them to be wiped out in the wild. The last known wild Passenger Pigeon was hunted in Ohio in 1901.

The Heath Hen was a species of greater prairie chicken that lived in our coastal regions from northern Virginia to southern New Hampshire. They were the first species that received federal protection in an attempt to prevent extinction. As early as 1791, a bill was passed to protect the bird, but it was largely unenforceable. Due to overhunting, the only population of Heath Hens left by 1870 resided on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. In 1908, the government established the Heath Hen Reserve on the site, attempting to protect the population from further decline. The reserve saw some success, but due to several unfortunate factors such as several unusually cold winters, a wildfire, the spread of disease, and an unusual number of predatory goshawks, the effort was largely unsuccessful. Though the last bird in the reserve died in 1932, many of the lessons learned and methods used in the attempt to save them are still used today in our conservation efforts toward protecting other birds and prairie chickens.

The Carolina Parakeet, which was the only native parrot that could be found within its range in the midwestern and eastern U.S. Beautiful, smaller-sized parakeets with colors of vibrant red, yellow, and green, they were social birds that formed strong communities and even grieved for members of their group that perished. While one of the main factors of their extinction was habitat loss due to deforestation, the fashion trends of the day were a contributing factor. Hats sporting bright feathers, and sometimes entire birds, were a popular fashion statement of the time, and it just so happened that the Carolina Parakeet was one such bird who sported bright, flashy colors. In addition to hunting for fashion, they were considered a nuisance bird by many farmers, who would hunt them to protect their crops. While the last known wild specimen perished in 1904, it wasn’t until 1939 that they were declared officially extinct.

The lessons we have learned from the losses of these species have in some ways shaped our understanding of modern bird conservation, and we have come so far since their extinction. Beyond the federal protections and conservation efforts in the U.S. that have been extended to all native migratory species, there are so many organizations and individuals worldwide who are dedicated to the conservation and appreciation of birds. Even more encouragingly, the popularity of birding has been steadily increasing for decades, and as an outdoor activity which can easily be socially distant, it saw a real explosion during the pandemic and has shown no sign of slowing.

When visitors see a statue in one of the 5 locations, what do you hope they can take away from the experience?

When visitors see one of the Lost Bird Project statues, the thing that I hope they take away from the experience most is a sense of curiosity. I hope people will want to find out more about why these birds were memorialized in sculpture, and about the stories they tell. Understanding that these species were so much more than a resource for humans is a vital lesson that can be learned from the project. All these birds played important roles in their habitats and lived vibrant and interesting lives. In order to protect them, it’s necessary that we recognize the beauty and importance of a species beyond their “economic potential.” I hope finding out about the species showcased in the project will spark curiosity in people who might then want to find out more about the amazing birds that live around us today.

What can we do in our daily lives to prevent future bird extinctions?

If you’re interested in helping support birds in your everyday life, the good news is there are several simple things that can be done to have an impact. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a great resource on these steps.

How long do we have to visit the statues? Will any be staying around the local area or do you happen to know where they will be traveling to next?

The Lost Bird Project is a traveling installation, and for most of the sculptures, I believe folks will have until spring to visit them at their current sites. However, we at Shaver’s Creek are very excited that because of the generosity of Cyrus Klingsberg, who is a longtime donor and friend to our organization, the Passenger Pigeon sculpture has found its permanent home at Shaver’s Creek! It will remain here in front of the Klingsberg Aviary to inspire curiosity and spark conversations about conservation efforts of our native bird species.

How will Shaver’s Creek continue to educate people on the lessons of this project after the statues have departed their locations?

Because the Passenger Pigeon is staying, it will continue to help us educate the public on conservation long after the other statues have departed. We will, however, be able to use it to have conversations about the lessons of the other species of the project as well. While the other statues will have moved on, the efforts of bird conservation will continue, and Shaver’s Creek will always support and educate about conservation of our native birds and other species.

Learn more about Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center