The Lost Bird Project | Film

About the Film

"A stunning and evocative work about art, nature and our imperiled planet." - The Montreal Mirror

"Watching it...I was crying." - The Martha's Vineyard Times


Gone and nearly forgotten in extinction, the Labrador Duck, the Great Auk, the Heath Hen, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Passenger Pigeon leave holes not just in the North American landscape but in our collective memories. Moved by their stories, sculptor Todd McGrain set out to create memorials to the lost birds—to bring their vanished forms back into the world.  The Lost Bird Project follows the road-trip that McGrain and his brother-in-law, Andy Stern, take as they search for the locations where the birds were last seen in the wild and negotiate for permission to install McGrain’s large bronze sculptures there.

The film is directed by Deborah Dickson, whose previous films have been nominated three times for Oscars, and is produced by Muffie Meyer, whose previous directing credits include the original Grey Gardens documentary and several Emmy award-winning documentaries. The score, composed by Grammy-winner Christopher Tin, is a stirring tone-poem for chamber orchestra, evoking the majesty of these flocks of birds, and the pathos of their eventual demise.

Traveling all the way from the tropical swamps of Florida to Martha’s Vineyard to the rocky coasts of Newfoundland over a period of two years, McGrain and Stern scout locations, talk to park rangers, speak at town meetings and battle bureaucracy in their effort to gather support for the project. McGrain’s aim in placing the sculptures is to give presence to the birds where they are now so starkly absent. “These birds are not commonly known,” he says, “and they ought to be, because forgetting is another kind of extinction. It’s such a thorough erasing.”

The Lost Bird Project is a film about public art, extinction and memory.  It is an elegy to five extinct North American birds and a thoughtful, moving, sometimes humorous look at the artist and his mission.


Todd McGrain's memorials to the Lost Birds can be visited at the following locations:

Heath Hen - Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
Passenger Pigeon - Grange Insurance Audubon Center, Columbus, Ohio
Carolina Parakeet - Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Okeechobee, Florida
Great Auk – Fogo Island, Newfoundland, Canada
Labrador Duck - Brand Park, Elmira, New York

About Todd McGrain

“The project starts with me putting my hands into a bucket of clay and beginning to form out shapes. That heightened attention to form makes it possible for me to be receptive. We’re receptive to the things we open ourselves up to and making sculpture is what opens me up to the world,” says artist Todd McGrain.

McGrain’s passion for form is apparent when he speaks of the physicality of a life of sculpting. “Touch is literally the way we come in contact with the world.” The memorials are not naturalistic works of biological detail, McGrain’s intention is to create shapes that capture the presence of the birds, to make them personal and palpable, to remind us of their absence.

These bronze sculptures are subtle, beautiful, and hopeful reminders. The human scale of each sculpture elicits a physical sympathy. The smooth surface, like a stone polished from touch, conjures the effect of memory and time. I model these gestural forms to contain a taut equilibrium, a balanced pressure from outside and from inside—like a breath held in. As a group they are melancholy, yet affirming. They compel us to recognize the finality of our loss, they ask us not to forget them, and they remind us of our duty to prevent further extinction.

Each of the five memorials have been permanently placed at the specific location directly related to the particular bird’s decline. An additional set of bronze sculptures has been cast and is available for temporary exhibitions.

Todd McGrain has been a sculptor for over 25 years. During this time he has received a number of grants and awards including the Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. McGrain has permanent sculpture installations at the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, New York; St. Paul Sculpture Park, St. Paul, Minnesota; Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, Okeechobee, Florida; Brand Park, Elmira, New York; Grange Audubon Center, Columbus Ohio; Kohler Art Center, Kohler, Wisconsin; Museum Civico Zoologia, Rome Italy. For the past ten years, McGrain has been directing his strengths as a sculptor toward the Lost Bird Project. He is the artist-in-residence in the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University.

For more about the artist, please visit his website:

Deborah Dickson, three-time Academy Award nominee, is an independent filmmaker whose films have shown at major film festivals and been broadcast on HBO and PBS. Dickson produced the acclaimed Carrier series, and directed Another Day in Paradise, the companion feature documentary about life aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. Witnesses to a Secret War, which Dickson produced and directed, tells the history of America’s clandestine war in Laos. The Education of Gore Vidal premiered at Sundance in 2002 and was broadcast as part of the award winning series, American Masters on PBS. Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001 and won over 12 awards at festivals worldwide was broadcast on Cinemax. Her film, Frances Steloff: Memoirs of a Bookseller premiered at Sundance and Berlin and was nominated for an Academy Award. Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse (co-directed with Anne Belle) premiered at the New York Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award. Dickson collaborated with Susan Froemke and Maysles Films, Inc on eight award-winning films—from Ozawa to Lalee’s Kin, which premiered at Sundance in 2000. Lalee’s Kin was nominated for a Spirit Award and an Academy Award and won an Alfred I. DuPont Award for Excellence in Journalism. It was broadcast on HBO. In addition to producing and directing, Dickson teaches directing at the Masters program in Social Documentary at the School of Visual Arts.

Muffie Meyer has over 30 years of film/video production experience. She is well-known for directing the original documentary, Grey Gardens (with the Maysles & Ellen Hovde), upon which both the musical and the HBO film were based. She has worked extensively for PBS, where her credits as director and producer include: Alexander Hamilton, The New Medicine; Liberty! The American Revolution (a 6-part mini-series); Benjamin Franklin (a 3-part mini-series); American Photography: A Century of Images (a 3-part mini-series); Saving the National Treasures, a NOVA special about the National Archives’ restoration of the Declaration of Independence; an episode of the series, Discovering Women; An Empire of Reason, the story of the ratification of the U. S. Constitution in New York State; Behind the Scenes, a ten-part series about the arts; and Dolley Madison. In addition, she directed (with Ellen Hovde) the feature film Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Virginia’s Story) starring Ellen Barkin and David Strathairn. Her productions have won most of the major awards including Emmys, the George Foster Peabody Award, the Columbia DuPont Journalism award, the Japan Prize, and many, many others. She has lectured or given master classes at Harvard, Princeton, NYU, The New School, Grinnell College, York University (Canada) and many other institutions.

Andy Stern is an Associate Professor of Neurology at The University of Rochester but now devotes himself fully to raising awareness about the environment through activities of The Lost Bird Project. Andy is a Zen Buddhist practitioner and author of numerous essays on a range of topics including the environment, memory and the nature of knowing, mostly from a Zen perspective. An art lover and amateur sculptor, he is married to Todd McGrain’s sister Melissa.

For more than 25 years, Scott has worked as an independent journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker. He is the founder and creative director at Pandau, an interactive company that uses narrative storytelling to build campaigns around projects in the digital space. Scott’s film credits include seven films for the flagship documentary program FRONTLINE (PBS) along with Home Front (Showtime), Witness to a Secret War (PBS), Life in Limbo and Greensboro: Closer to the Truth. He has also directed, produced, shot and edited non-fiction work for clients such as The International Rescue Committee, Starbucks Coffee and the Open Society Foundations.

Roger Phenix has spent four decades working on documentary nature films for the Smithsonian, Audubon, PBS Nature, and on many documentaries about art, science, and music.

Christopher Tin is a Grammy-winning composer, whose eclectic career spans film, television, video games, advertising, and the record industry. His music is marked by a natural ease of melody, economy of gesture, and a flair for the dramatic. His debut album Calling All Dawns was the recipient of two Grammys at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards: Best Classical Crossover Album, and Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists (for the song ‘Baba Yetu’).

Christopher Cokinos is the author of two books of literary nonfiction, Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds, which helped inspire The Lost Bird Project, and The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars, which sent him to Antarctica, Greenland and the Australian Outback. Both books are from Tarcher/Penguin. His lyric essay collection, Bodies, of the Holocene, is forthcoming from Truman, and a poetry chapbook, Held as Earth, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Chris has poems, essays, reviews and stories in such venues as Pank, The American Scholar, the New York Times, Science, Poetry, Orion, High Desert Journal and elsewhere. He contributes essays fairly regularly to High Country News and to the Los Angeles Times. The winner of several national writing awards, including a Whiting, Chris teaches in the MFA program at the University of Arizona, where he is affiliated faculty with the Institute of the Environment.