For city-dwellers, a pigeon sighting is rarely noteworthy. Then again, these birds that crowd sidewalks and peck at breadcrumbs in parks aren’t usually wearing flamboyant costumes.
Laurel Roth Hope’s series, “Biodiversity Reclamation Suits for Urban Pigeons,” transforms these everyday birds into extinct feathered species using colorful outfits carefully tailored to their tubby bodies.
She does not dress up live birds. (That would be mean.) Instead, Hope uses resin casting, epoxy, and paint to make pigeon “mannequins.” Each one is unique. She then sketches out pattern ideas and selects yarn to match. Finally, she crochets the suit, making up the pattern as she goes along and adjusting it until it looks right. The art series, which began with the likenesses of classic emblems of extinction like the dodo and the passenger pigeon, now includes Seychelles parakeets, great auks, heath hens, and others. Hope is currently researching species like the Guadalupe storm petrel and the recently extinct Hawaiian Mohoidae to grow her collection of masquerading birds.
Hope has always been creative but says, “I grew up working class and—quite honestly—didn’t see art as a viable career path.” So she became a park ranger for Marin County Parks just north of San Francisco. Eventually Hope saved up to take a little break from her conservation work to focus on her art, thinking she’d return to her park ranger post after six months. That was more than 10 years ago.
The now-full-time artist relocated to San Francisco to pursue her new career but wants to observe some of the same ecological processes she’d followed as a conservationist. “I started focusing on birds, because they tend to be the only non-domesticated animals that people see in a city on a daily basis,” Hope says. An interest in two opposite but related phenomena inspired her biodiversity suits: species that have adapted exceptionally well to life alongside humans and species that our activities have driven off the planet.
It’s troubling to think how the now-extinct passenger pigeon was once as abundant as its urban cousin, but Hope says her pigeons-in-disguise are “a bit tongue-in-cheek” and created “to release some of the sense of despair that caring about conservation or extinction patterns can bring.” She describes each yarn ensemble as “a soothing ‘cozy’ on environmental fears.”
Underneath that woolly shroud is a humble urban pigeon shown in a new light. And maybe we don’t give this species enough credit for its success. “Something that is common isn’t generally considered valuable, so the strength of a pigeon’s adaptability to anthropogenic changes in a sense devalues it in most people’s eyes.”
The series may be playful, but it’s borne out of genuine respect for biodiversity. “There’s so much that is fascinating and beautiful to learn about the world we share with other species, but human-centric life can be overwhelming,” Hope says. “It’s easy to forget that we’re not the only ones here or the only ones that matter.”
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