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Laure Stevens-Lubin    

          unNatural
hiStories

When I began this project in 2014, after the "State of the Birds" report came out, I called it
“Avian Hagiographies.”  I believe that birds are kinds of saints, bringing everyday miracles into our lives.  One evening in 2010 I stepped outside my door to behold a tornado of swifts circling over a chimney.  I called to my family and we all watched rapt, as one by one swifts seemed to be sucked down to the cavity within.  Since 1966, when the records I am using were begun, the chimney swift population has declined by 70 percent.  I, inadvertently, was part of that problem.  I’d found a dead swift now and then inside my own chimney.  I’d rescued some from the fireplace inside the house.  In my ignorance I capped my chimneys to keep them from being “trapped” inside, thus depriving them of nesting and roosting space.  I have since removed the chimney caps.

                                                                                                   

I have since begun to think of this project as “My life without birds.”  This record of population decline pretty well coincides with my own life span.  My grandmother was a bird watcher and turned me, at a young age, into one.  Throughout most of my adult life I have kept desultory lists, and I know the birds that I have seen that I will likely never see again as they now are on the brink of extinction, the Siberian crane, Bhutan’s white-bellied heron, the green-tailed sunbird that flutters like an emerald ribbon blown from a ladies’ hat, which the renowned Indian ornithologist Salim Ali had once termed a “common bird of the garden.”

This project focuses on North American common birds in steep decline.  I chose to focus on the common birds, rather than those of more exotic and threatened cast, because it is often that which that we take for granted, whose cackle and fuss are the background noise of our daily lives, whose small daily intrusions we note, then disregard, until they only become present in their absence. It includes the oft vilified herring gull (Red Listed in the British Isles), the grackle whose call like a creaking playground swing set  ushered in spring, along with the bobwhite quail, the mated pairs leading their chicks in an orderly line to the  corn we scattered beneath our feeders on cape cod.  The last quail I saw there was in 1987, a male, perched in a tree, calling for a mate. I have chosen to only paint those birds I have myself seen.

 

As a Buddhist and a bird watcher I have come to understand the importance of living in the present moment—although that is so hard for my painter’s monkey mind.  I too have stood rapt as the dark banner of a starling flock unfurled itself across the sky. On Cape Cod, in the last five years, turkeys, which I never saw as a child, are everywhere. They come to the yard, calling politely for corn, They graze unfazed by heavy traffic upon the lawns of banks.  I’ve been told that they have taken over in all of Massachusetts. Things change.  I shouldn’t, but do, have an attachment to the birds that are fading from my life.  Now it seems, the age of the specialist is at an end and the opportunist’s moment has arrived.

 


chimney swift:
70% decline

 

common grackle:
60% decline


 
eastern meadowlark:
90% decline
 

northern pintail: 72%decline  
herring gull: 80% decline  

bobwhite quail:
85% decline
 
common nighthawk: 61% decline
 
loggerhead shrike:
76% decline