For the Birds

A requiem, in three parts.

July 2023

Reading time min

Statue of a passenger pigeon

Passenger Pigeon

Photography by Ananya Navale, ’25

When passenger pigeons were plentiful, they could darken the skies for days. Flocks a mile wide were described as blocking out the sun as they passed overhead. “I think we have a hard time even imagining how animated our continent was with life,” says sculptor Todd McGrain, who spent years creating a six-foot-tall sculpture of a passenger pigeon to serve as a memorial to the species. The sculpture resides in Ohio, where in 1900 the last passenger pigeon in the wild was shot and killed. Four other sculptures—of a Labrador duck, a heath hen, a great auk, and a Carolina parakeet—sit perched around the country as part of the Lost Bird Project, McGrain’s effort to highlight extinctions that have occurred in modern times.

Second editions of each sculpture arrived at Stanford earlier this year thanks in part to two-time Grammy-winning composer Christopher Tin, ’98, MA ’99. Tin first heard about the project more than a decade ago, when he signed on to write the score for the documentary chronicling McGrain’s efforts. “When we talk about the arts tackling the great issues of our time, often it takes a multidisciplinary approach,” Tin says. The sculptures, in his eyes, generate discussion. The documentary educates. And the music kindles emotion. Tin himself was so moved by the stories of the extinct species that, after the film wrapped, he spent the next decade working on a 12-movement choral composition that celebrates the birds’ beauty and mourns their loss. This year, he premiered his new album, The Lost Birds, at Bing Concert Hall, accompanied by a screening of the documentary and the installation of the five sculptures. The composition, recorded by British vocal ensemble Voces8 and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, was nominated for a 2023 Grammy.

“In my mind, the core message of the album is really that bird extinction is just a preface for our own extinction,” Tin says. “Music cannot solve the world’s problems on its own, but it can inspire the next generation of leaders who will solve the world’s problems.”

Statue of Labrador DuckLabrador Duck

Statue of Carolina ParakeetCarolina Parakeet

Statue of Heath HenHeath Hen

Statue of Great AukGreat Auk

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at

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