Birds like the passenger pigeon, the great auk, and the heath hen, and the Carolina parakeet are extinct, but while they were alive artists and ornithologists like Mark Catesby, Alexander Wilson, and John James Audubon managed to depict them in portraits, portraits that are now available for viewing in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition “Beneath a Wild Sky: Stories of America’s Lost Birds.” Mounted in the museum’s Peggy Maximus Gallery and organized by curator Linda Miller, the exhibit displays prints ranging between 150 and 250 years old and tells the story of how eight species of birds vanished forever. According to Ms. Miller, these century-plus aged prints were created not only when the exhibit’s featured bird species were still around, but far away from extinction.
“What I decided to do is tell the story of the eight extinct birds and how they went extinct and show artwork that was printed when they were still abundant and there were vast millions of them,” she said.
These eight birds are the passenger pigeon, the heath hen, the great auk, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the eskimo curlew, Bachman’s warbler, and the Carolina parakeet. According to Ms. Miller the portraits featured in the exhibit consist of both long-time holdings of the museum and new acquisitions. The latter includes an 1863 Audubon print of the passenger pigeon that Ms. Miller bought in 2019 and a 1749 Catesby print of the ivory-billed woodpecker that she purchased from a Tennessee art dealer just two weeks ago. The curator commented that acquiring the pieces needed to complete the exhibit wasn’t easy, as their age makes them very rare.
“They are very finite in number. There were usually only a couple hundred printed at the time,” she said.
Despite the exhibition’s focus on birds that disappeared, it does contain one hopeful glimmer of light in its “Tale of Recovery” section, which contains a portrait of a California condor and a taxidermied condor chick. According to Ms. Miller, in the 1980s there were only 22 remaining condors living in the wild in California. But unlike the heath hen and Carolina parakeets, which unfortunately didn’t receive enough help from conservation-minded public policy, the California condor was brought back from the brink when the remaining individuals were brought in from the wild and bred in captivity through the Condor Recovery Program.
Ms. Miller remarked, “In this case, because of enlightened conservation efforts… the condor is making a comeback slowly but it’s the only case in this whole room that was nearly extinct.”
Accompanying the condor’s portrait is a tall caption telling of its near-extinction and recent recovery. Similar captions accompany the portraits of the eight extinct birds, only with far less happy endings. Ms. Miller told the News-Press that she hopes attendees read these in addition to admiring the artworks so the exhibit’s message leaves its full impact.
“It’s a message that we need to take care of the birds that we do have. We need to feel that we need to protect our environment and the wildlife,” she said.
The “Beneath a Wild Sky” exhibition opens today and will run in the museum’s Peggy Maximus Gallery until May 3, 2020.