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When John James Audubon began his ambitious Birds of America project, his goal was to paint every bird in North America. Produced between 1827-1838, Birds of America contains 435 hand-coloured, life-sized prints of North American bird species. The book is accompanied by text written by Audubon and ornithologist William MacGillivray, which provides not only scientific information, but also first-hand record of encounters with bird species in their environment. Many of these written descriptions describe how plentiful the birds were. On Passenger Pigeons Audubon states, “In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio, on my way to Louisville. In passing over the Barrens a few miles beyond Hardensburgh, I observed the Pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye in one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I travelled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.” Birds of America contains illustrations of six birds which have since gone extinct – the Passenger Pigeon being just one.
Recent estimates suggest that 179 species of birds have gone extinct since the year 1500. Historically, about ninety percent of these extinctions have taken place on islands, and about half of these at the paws of invasive mammals. Another twenty-five percent of these extinctions are attributed to overhunting and trapping. More recently however, scientists are seeing waves of extinctions not on islands, but on continental land masses. Additionally, the primary causes of these extinctions are heavy deforestation, habitat loss, and climate change. Not only is biodiversity being threatened by extinctions, bird populations are generally crashing. Recent research suggests that North America alone has lost 3 billion birds in just the last fifty years!
My project revisits Audubon’s Birds of America illustrations and focuses on North American birds which were encountered by him, but which are now listed by the IUCN as either Extinct, Endangered, or Vulnerable. My compositions are directly inspired by Audubon’s original prints and like his are executed as life size images – in fact my prints are precisely the same size as the original Audubon prints. However, the birds in my prints are not represented as living, but as scientific bird skin specimens – tagged, rigid, preserved and lifeless yet tangible. My work asks, “how sad a world would it be without the feathered beauty of birds filling our skies and the melodic sing-song of birds filling our back yards, forests, and remaining wild places.” I hope to raise awareness of the plight of these creatures and potentially our own. Are we in fact witnessing the proverbial canary in the coal mine quite literally? I hope to spurn action, contemplation, and at the very least a sense of wonder at the fleeting beauty of the surrounding world.