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The Lost Bird Project: Todd McGrain’s Environmental Reckoning

The Lost Bird Project: Todd McGrain’s Environmental Reckoning
William De Luca

William De Luca

November 2, 2022
3 Min

“Forgetting is a different kind of extinction. It is a thorough form erasing,” says artist Todd McGrain, reflecting on his long-form art piece,The Lost Bird Project. McGrain, who is a Guggenheim Museum fellow and held a residency at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, worked on his project from the early 2000s to 2014 (Gambino). With it, he aimed to memorialize five birds once native to North America (Gambino). The Great Auk, Labrador Duck, PassengerPigeon, Carolina Parakeet, and Heath Hen, which are now extinct due to climate change and human industry, were McGrain’s subjects. The work makes a powerful statement, calling upon the viewer to consider their relationship with nature and how human action has affected the planet we share with countless other species. 

The Lost Bird Project utilizes sculpture, film, and literature to realize McGrain’s vision. The artist first created a series of five large-scale bronze sculptures depicting the bodies of each of the birds. He originally exhibited his sculptures at the locations where the birds were last physically seen. They have since been moved and displayed allover the United States (both together and separately).

Todd McGrain in his studio (Gambino)

McGrain’s journey was the subject of a powerful feature-length documentary featuring a score by Grammy award-winning composer Christopher Tin.The film, titled The Lost Bird Project, enhances the artist’s message while offering viewers a glimpse into his intellectual and creative processes.McGrain also produced a book which represents his artistic diary in addition to a natural history of the five birds. The sculptures, film, and book collectively provide an abundance of points reflection about how bio diversity has changed in the past two centuries. 

Poster for The Lost Bird Project documentary film (IMDb)


McGrain does not simply memorialize once-living birds–– he memorializes the negative byproducts of human development on the natural world.Forgetting the five birds is a travesty, yet the absence of a common understanding and consideration of society’s impact on the environment is unforgivable.Messages like McGrain’s must be heard and heeded in order to repair the relationship between humanity and Earth before the climate crisis reaches an even further irreversible point. 

In the coming years, McGrain aims to bring The Lost BirdProject further into the public eye. He may create another series of sculptures of endangered birds on the verge of extinction. Inspired by McGrain’s work,Christopher Tin has written a new piece, an extinction elegy titled The Lost Birds. His composition will be performed by British vocal ensemble VOCES8at Stanford University in February 2023 as part of the Stanford Live series (StanfordLive).  


The Lost Bird Project Website: https://www.lostbird.org/ 

Works Cited: 

Gambino, Megan. “Bronze Sculptures of FiveExtinct Birds Land in Smithsonian Gardens.” Smithsonian.com, SmithsonianInstitution, 4 Apr. 2014, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/bronze-sculptures-of-five-extinct-birds-land-in-Smithsonian-Gardens-180950366/.  

“The Lost Bird Project.”IMDb, IMDb.com, 18 Mar. 2012, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1959457/.  

“Voces8 &Christopher Tin.” VOCES8 & Christopher Tin | Stanford Live, StanfordLive, 4 Nov. 2022, https://live.stanford.edu/calendar/february-2023/voces8-christopher-tin.  

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