John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
These bespoke costumes are both cute and acidic, a commentary on all the birds that America has destroyed.
In all the great works of craft on display at the Smithsonian's 40 Under 40 exhibit, at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., Laurel Roth's are perhaps the funniest and most poignant. She
knits crochets clothing for pigeons, you see, garments which allow them to disguise themselves as species like the Carolina Parakeet and the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.
If you haven't heard of those birds, there's a reason for that: They're extinct. (OK, almost certainly extinct in the case of the Ivory Billed.) That's what gives Roth's animal clothing its bittersweet edge. I recently contacted the artist, who is based in San Francisco, to ask her what her pigeon costumes ultimately stand for. Here's what she had to say:
How did this idea come to you? Why design specifically for pigeons, anyway?
Pigeons stand out to me for a few reasons. In a way, by virtue of their adaptability to humans and urban environments they reduce their perceived value to us (to the point that they are often considered a pest). Conversely, an extinct or endangered bird is valuable to us because it is NOT adaptable to us and our effects on the environment. The last living individuals of some species were hunted specifically because they were the last specimens (and therefore rare and coveted for collections).
It's interesting and a bit odd to me that we see adaptability as a virtue but most value what can't adapt to us. Passenger Pigeons were so numerous in the 19th century that they supposedly blocked the sun with 3.5-billion bird flocks that were 300 square miles large, but they were extinct by 1914. Now we'll pay money to see a slightly battered, stuffed one in a natural history museum.
I'm interested in urban birds in general because of the way some species can adapt to urban environments and live their lives among us on a slightly different plane of existence. It adds a layer of awareness to look around and see how an urban environment might be seen as a source of food and shelter for another species, and how that can all take place in and among our homes and lives without us hardly noticing.
Have you ever tried putting one of your creations on an actual bird?
I haven't put one on an actual bird – it doesn't seem fair to bring them into the project unwillingly, and none have volunteered. I imagine that it would be even harder to take it off afterwards since feathers are directional. Also, the idea of getting scratched or pecked by a city pigeon kinda grosses me out – I've seen what they eat....
(All photos used with permission from the artist. If you enjoyed these pigeon suits, consider making a donation to help them fly into the Renwick's permanent collection.)