Rare Photographs of 12 Extinct Birds


Image: Henry Charles Clarke Wright

Laughing Owl, photographed sometime between 1889 and 1910

We often think of extinct animals as little more than forlorn, shabby-looking specimens that have been stuffed and preserved for display in museums; animals trapped in glass boxes as if for eternity rather than frolicking free in the wild. Yet, a few photographs were taken of the 12 extinct (or probably extinct) bird species described here before the last of their kin disappeared, meaning these snapshots have become rare treasures. Let’s remember that on this rather sad trip into the past.

Image: J. G. Hubbard

A group of Passenger Pigeons in the aviary of C.O. Whitman, a professor of zoology at the University of Chicago

Many factors can contribute to the extinction of an entire species. These can be genetic – for instance, the ‘pollution’ of purebred species; biological, owing to causes such as predation and disease; or the result of outside forces, like climate change. Sadly, humans have played a major part in the extinction of many different species. The greed of over-hunting and carelessness of habitat destruction have both been blameworthy in such cases. But, sometimes it comes down to simple ignorance of the important role that a species fulfills. Or to the introduction of invasive species. Let’s hope the examples of these already extinct birds educate us on how not to treat other existing species.

We’ve looked at rare photographs of extinct animals like the Thylacine previously on Environmental Graffiti. Now it’s time to peruse some equally scarce snapshots of extinct bird species – all wiped out so recently that their images are preserved on film.


Image: Cuthbert and Oliver Parr

12. South Island Laughing Owl

A young Laughing Owl in its nest under a limestone boulder, photographed in 1909 at Raincliff Station, Opihi River, South Canterbury

The South Island Laughing Owl (Sceloglaux albifacies) was a native of New Zealand (hence its name) that lived in low, rocky areas, as well as forests (on the North Island). No doubt because of its facial markings, it was also known as the White-faced Owl. As for the ‘laughing’ part of its moniker, it came down to this owl’s “mischievous-sounding calls,” also described as “a loud cry made up of a series of dismal shrieks frequently repeated” and “precisely the same as two men ‘cooeying’ to each other from a distance.” It sure sounds like the bird made a distinctive din; what a shame its fate means it’s a sound our ears will never again hear…

Sadly, the South Island Laughing Owl population was already well on the decline by the 1880s, and the last reports of sightings – and these are unconfirmed – date to 1925 and 1927. Persecution by man and the introduction of more powerful, direct predators like cats and stoats (short-tailed weasels) are the factors now thought to have brought about the extinction of this gentle and unwary bird.