Parakeet Art


Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Incas, the last known captive Carolina parakeet.

Incas was surely not the last of his species, as Noel Snyder has cogently pointed out. But when that bird fell from his perch in the Cincinnati zoo, it seems that interest in the parakeets died too. For whatever reason, this species’ decline never drew much attention, and its extinction was, apparently, deemed simply inevitable.

A century on, it doesn’t seem quite fair. The loss of the Americas’ northernmost psittacid should have been mourned then and should be more widely known now. Ask a hundred people on the street about the passenger pigeon or the ivory-billed woodpecker, and most of them will have some dim remembering of having heard the names. Not so with the parrot.

Like the Eskimo curlew, the Carolina parakeet is a birder’s bird even in extinction. And that makes it even more important that a few artists have used this species to confront the role of humans in the natural world.

The sculptor Laurel Roth’s “Biodiversity Reclamation Suits” is a great example.

Laurel Roth parakeet

Each of the dozen and a half objects that make up Roth’s punningly titled work is a wooden pigeon, draped in a crocheted “skin” representing a different rare or extinct bird. Much of the power of “Suits” lies in the apparent  incongruity between the bright, cheerful, craft-like colors and textures of the needlework (can I call crocheting “needlework”?) and the somber reality of what it depicts.

Roth herself has compared the yarn suits to “a soothing ‘cozy’ on environmental fears,” an act of covering “the feelings of helplessness and confused shame that come with learning about accelerated extinction rates caused by humans.” A defining character of art, of course, is that whatever it conceals is exactly what it means to draw attention to.

What the suits literally cover is the form of a feral pigeon, a bird high on everyone’s least-likely-to-disappear list. The artist explains that

visually recreating lost biodiversity by using the rarely appreciated but highly adaptable pigeon serves both to highlight the loss that we have already sustained [and to draw] attention to the fact that we often revile the animals most capable of living in a human made environment.

The question of what humans value and why is brought to a fine point by Roth’s use of contrasting materials. The pigeons, a species ignored by those who don’t “revile” them, are realistically sculptured in wood and mounted on walnut stands. The suits representing rare and extinct birds — desirable birds — are made of common yarn, stylized almost to the point of garishness; skillfully made, they would nevertheless look at home at any yard sale or church bazaar. Which are we supposed to value, which should we admire when we look at these objects?

The death of Incas was hardly noted at the time, with just the merest mention in the Cincinnati papers — and hardly a peep from the ornithological journals. This sad centennial will likely draw no more notice, but we are fortunate to have this artist to remind us.

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What Remained

On August 31, 1914, the world was still inhabited by a living passenger pigeon.

Two days later, all we had left were the slightly tacky ornaments of still-Victorian parlors.

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These two males, in the collection of Ottomar Reinecke, were shot, each on one side of the international border at Buffalo, New York, in September 1891, “martyrs,” as R. Magoon Barnes put it, “to the fool with a shotgun.”

Barnes, of course, wasn’t calling Reinecke a fool; they were friends, or at least oological colleagues, and neither ever believed that his own activities as a “scientific” amateur had contributed to the end of the pigeon.

Indeed, one of the most striking phenomena around the extinction of this species is the blithe hypocrisy of the collectors of the day. Reinecke, characteristically, blamed the “ruthless extirpation” on netting and the “professional plundering of nests.”   Barnes’s reproach of his fellow citizens was posted in the window of his law office in Chicago — accompanied by one of the mounts from his extensive private collection.

It’s true: No museum collector and no private amateur ever took anything like the numbers of pigeons slaughtered by the farm boys and the pothunters. But their crocodile tears in the months after September 1914 are still unseemly at best.


An Extinct Individual

Living passenger pigeon 1913

If that title made my readers, all two of them, look twice — Good.

Individuals die; the grand word extinction can be properly applied only to the passing from existence of species and other populations.

But at the same time, of course, that passing from existence can take place only with the death of the last individual of the species. And on today’s anniversary, the one hundredth September 1 we have seen come without the passenger pigeon, birders are recalling both: the extinction of that once wildly abundant species and the sordid death of its last member, the zoo bird Martha.

The indelible image in everyone’s mind is of Martha all tidied up, her skin stuffed and mounted and (once again) on display in Washington.

We’ve seen a lot of that specimen 223979 the past few days, but there are other pictures of Martha, grainy, slightly grisly pictures that perhaps drive home the finality of extinction — for her and for her species — better than any glass-cased relic could.

When Martha dropped on September 1, 1914, her corpse was frozen into a great block of ice for shipment to the Smithsonian.

Photo: Moebelle, Zoochat
Photo: Moebelle, Zoochat

The package arrived on September 4, and Charles Richmond immediately telephoned Robert Shufeldt, the anatomist and pioneering photographer (etc.). Around 11:00 that morning, the bird had sufficiently thawed for Shufeldt to take three photographs of it in the flesh.

Corpse of passenger pigeon

Shufeldt, Martha, and the museum preparator William Palmer then — who would have expected this? — left the Smithsonian for Shufeldt’s house on 18th Street; how they transported the still intact corpse I do not know. Shortly after 1:15 pm, in a back room on the third floor, Palmer began to skin the last of the passenger pigeons.

Passenger pigeon Martha

Immediately after Shufeldt took this photograph, showing the skin still attached to the carcass at the front of the skull, he placed the eyes and brain in alcohol, and Palmer finished removing Martha’s skin.

The two men then went downstairs for a late lunch. As 4:00 approached, Palmer went home “with the skin in his possession,” and Shufeldt ascended the stairs to deal with the body.

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Oddly, Shufeldt found the bird’s internal organs badly disturbed and displaced, “as though it had been done with some instrument”; the intestine was “missing altogether” and the right lobe of the liver “in scattered fragments.” His hopes for a full, photographically documented dissection were frustrated, but Shufeldt provided detailed notes on all of the physical structures present in the carcass, from the nerves to the tongue. There was more to say even about this damaged specimen than the pages of the Auk could accommodate:

Were I to go as far as I could into this subject of the anatomy of the Passenger Pigeon, my collected observations would afford material for several good-sized volumes.

Shufeldt stopped short of dissecting the heart

preferring to preserve it in its entirety — perhaps somewhat influenced by sentimental reasons, as the heart of the last “Blue Pigeon” that the world will ever see alive.

The skin would eventually be mounted by the Smithsonian taxidermist Nelson Wood.

Martha mount passenger pigeon

Neat and pretty, isn’t she? A lot neater, a lot prettier, than extinction — or than her own death, a hundred years ago today.


Pictures of Pigeons

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Remember how hard it used to be to gather image material for study or publication?

No, you probably don’t. I can barely recall those days of drudgery and trudgery myself, all that time in the library and on the telephone and at the post office. Now, it’s all (or much, with more every day) out there just a click away — a circumstance that keeps me wondering why on earth, in this year of sad commemoration, we haven’t assembled more of the pictorial record of the passenger pigeon.

Even Joel Greenberg’s now canonical Feathered Riverwhich offers a good selection of images — not a few of them new to me — is limited by the constraints of print to scattered black and white photographs and a single sixteen-page gathering of color plates. Maybe Pinterest is the way to go after all.

In any event, here are a few of the many images produced over the years and the centuries; critical remarks on some of them are offered in Schorger’s “Evaluation of Illustrations,” Chapter 16 in his Passenger Pigeon. I’ve forborne from posting the well-known plates by Wilson, Audubon, Fuertes, and Hayashi, all of which are widely and conveniently available.

I make an exception for Mark Catesby, as many of the images credited on line and in print to his Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands are in fact from Seligmann. Here is the real thing, thanks to the Smithsonian Libraries and (again and again) BHL:

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According to Schorger, Catesby’s painting was preceded some thirteen years earlier, “about 1700,” by the first European drawing of the species, in the Codex canadensis now attributed to the Jesuit missionary Louis Nicolas.

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The text reads, in translation,

Oumimi, or ourité, or dove. One sees such great numbers of this bird at the first passage in spring and fall that it is incredible unless seen.

(Incidentally, Nicolas’s other work, the Histoire naturelle des Indes occidentales, which appears to be known almost exclusively to botanists, includes an entire chapter on the passenger pigeon, unmentioned, if rightly I remember, in Schorger and in Greenberg.)

Thomas Pennant’s Arctic Zoology poses a passenger pigeon alongside its smaller cousin, the mourning dove:

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Mathurin Brisson rightly praised Johann Leonhard Frisch’s plate in the Vorstellung as “icon accurata”:

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He could also have mentioned that it is one of the loveliest depictions of the bird ever published, a distinction that separates it vastly from the raggedy pigeon shown in Forster’s translation of Kalm’s Travels:

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Surprisingly, E. Lear (I assume that E. Lear) was hardly more successful in the pigeon he drew for Prideaux John Selby’s Pigeons.

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I can’t say that the figure in the Planches enluminées is too much better.

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Eyton gets it closer to right in his History of Rarer British Birds.

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William Pope painted his bird in 1835.

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From earlier in the nineteenth century, the notorious Pauline Knip’s pigeon pair is decorative, but both birds are too obviously dead and stuffed for my taste.

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Both sexes are also shown in De Kay’s Zoology of New York:

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Henry Leonard Meyer’s colored portrait, almost two hundred years old now, has an orientalizing lightness to it that still appeals to my twenty-first-century eyes (Schorger, a sterner critic than I am, says “no merit as to drawing and coloring”).

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Copied and imitated and plagiarized again and again, the appealing woodcut in Thomas Nuttall’s Manual seems familiar even to eyes that have never seen it.

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It is not clear to me just who is responsible for the plate in Morris’s History of British Birds, whether Alexander Lydon or another painter; in any event, this is not a work many artists would rush to claim.

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Still, it’s better than the infamous image of half a dozen shockingly colorful, big-footed birds in Studer:

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I prefer the justifiably wary birds in the background of this plate from the same work:

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Published in the same year as the death of the last pigeon, Bruce Horsfall’s bird looks a bit too much like a mourning dove, I think.

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The passenger pigeon survived, at least in dribs and drabs, well into the age of photography. Martha, the last known individual of the species, may have been the most pictured of all individual American birds before the invention of the digital camera.

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One of the last photographs of the dead Martha, taken by Robert Shufeldt while the corpse was still intact:

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The shutters didn’t stop clicking here. Sometime between now and September, I’ll post some of the published photographs of the dissection — memento mori.

Meanwhile, are there interesting and useful images I’ve missed?