Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Poignant records of lost animals

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird books, Bird conservation Updated: March 17, 2014 - 4:39 PM

“Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record,” Errol Fuller, Princeton University Press, 2013, hardcover, 255 pages, illustrated, $29.95.

The animals going extinct today are so much more fortunate than the animals that went extinct, say, 100 years ago.

They are apt to be better remembered.

Today we can capture in photographs memories of what we are losing. We can easily keep the lost ones on record, in mind. We are so able to document our folly.

That was not the case until fairly recently. Equipment was a factor, probably the factor. No one was able to photograph the sky-darkening flocks of Passenger Pigeons, the flocks that, we are told, took  days and nights to pass a single place.

We can’t form a true mental image from the words, “We are told.” We need the experience or the photo of the blackened sky to help us comprehend the loss.

There are photos of Passenger Pigeons. You’ve perhaps seen the sad, poignant photos of Martha, the last of her species as she waited in the Cincinnati zoo to put a period on her story. 

Author Errol Fuller gives us a book filled with poignant images in “Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record.” He has collected photo images of 28 animals gone extinct. There are many more extinctions, of course, but few photo records of what is gone. 

Some of the photos are quite good, others dark and blurry. Particularly good are the black-and-white photos taken by James T. Tanner of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers encountered in the 1930s as he studied these birds in Louisiana. There are several images of a young bird, looking almost playful, obviously unaware of its future.

Most of the animals discussed in the book are birds. For all of the animals Fuller provides interesting, brief accounts of how and why these animals went extinct, who had photos, and how he found them. He offers important footnotes to extinction history. The answer to the question why, incidentally, turns out to be habitat loss more often than not. Apparently, we haven’t learned much from our history.

I found the emotional content of these photos surprising. There is a difference between reading of an extinct animal and seeing them here. Fuller shows us what we’ve lost.

Because some of the photos are of marginal quality, Fuller has included in an appendix artists’ illustrations of these 28 animals. They are lovely, colored paintings and drawings. They are not nearly as powerful as the sometimes crude photos he offers us.

(Note on Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Some people say there are more recent photos of that bird, albeit blurred, distant images best viewed with imagination. Fuller believes this species to be dead and gone, any photos in absolute need of imagination. He mocks people who say they have seen the bird as recently as 2002. Some of us believe — hope — he sooner or later will be proven wrong. The hunt does continue.)

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