Birds that Perish During Migration are the Stuff of Education

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

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.  

See this article's accompanying photo gallery

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."