Birds that Perish During Migration are the Stuff of Education

Photograph by Katherine Wolkoff

Birds that Perish During Migration are the Stuff of Education

The fate of migrating birds a century ago can teach us plenty right now.

By Katherine Wolkoff/Text by Julie Leibach
Published: May-June 2012

These stuffed birds did not die in vain. They're part of an avian taxidermy collection that for decades has helped educate children about birds on Block Island, a critical migratory stopover point 12 miles off the Rhode Island coast. The collection, comprised of 172 specimens, dates to the 1920s, when curator Elizabeth Dickens began the project. 

Dickens, a bird lover, led a "Bird Study" course for schoolchildren, according to the Oceanview Foundation, which preserves land on Block Island. The birds in her collection--some of them donated by the children--perished for various reasons, although Dickens excluded birds that had been intentionally killed. Above, the black-billed cuckoo at left flew into a lighted window; the yellow-billed cuckoo collided with a lighthouse. Each type of death, recorded on a tag, underscores the gauntlet millions of migrating birds face even more today than they did back then. Dickens's passion proved more than a hobby. "To her we owe practically all the knowledge we have of the place the Island holds as a stepping stone in the off-shore migration route of the Atlantic Flyway," wrote John W. Aldrich of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1956.  

[gallery:32746|align:left|caption:GALLERY See more photos from the collection.]

Photographer Katherine Wolkoff heard about the Bird Lady of Block Island, as Dickens became known, on a ferry ride there and has photographed her entire collection, "in a way, to create another archive," she says--one that might survive the aging original. Shooting the birds in silhouette blurs the line between life and death and "abstracts them a little bit," says Wolkoff, so that they don't represent individual species so much as a universal whole. "I'm really trying to see the world differently, and elevate the ordinary into the extraordinary."



Photographer:  Katherine Wolkoff

Subject: Black-billed (left) and yellow-billed cuckoos

Where: Block Island, Rhode Island

Camera: Toyo 4 x 5 field camera

Lens: Rodenstock

Exposure: 135 mm

This piece originally ran in the May-June 2012 issue as "Crash Course."

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Julie Leibach

Julie Leibach is managing editor of and a former Audubon senior editor. Follow her on Twitter: @JulieLeibach

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine