Unworded bird, don’t come near my window
Webster compiled many words to lament extinction.
None were chosen from the weighty tome,
The Third International edition had
A brief entry,
A tiny illustration
Of a parakeet.
Steeped in boiling wax,
Chilled, leaving entries entombed
Texts turned to stone on thin pages.
Like the culture carved away the bounty of life,
Word after word was pared away
Leaving a lexicon of loss perched in solitude.
I heard the bird before I saw the word—the chirping from conceptual artist Mel Chin’s Never Forever: The Cabinets of Conuropsis, around the corner of the room. But then I saw The Bird Is the Word (North Carolina Variation) also by Chin—a pearly-beige fowl against a white wall, at an unobtrusive scale, and oneiric—the lone part of a binary. The word “papyrus” creeps out from between its wax-adhered Webster’s pages, chiseled away by the artist to render its shape. Chin then wrote an accompanying and poetic text above the sculpture, as a kind of textual mirror. In Chin’s beginning though was a black-and-white image from the illustrated dictionary, now bird-bodied; but really, in the beginning (if we can call it that) was the flying red, green, and yellow-crowned rush of the bird. The words came to be with us, amassing as a cunning double:
Parrakeet or parroquet, a handsome parrakeet, having a long tail and mostly green plumage, but with yellow head, red face, and blue and yellow on the wings. It was remarkable as being the only member of the parrot family whose range extended far into the United States, having been recorded as far north as Albany, New York. Owing to constant persecution by man, it is nearly extinct.2
And over time, the words kept stockpiling. Beside a marsh lush with osprey, I mine them on my computer, searching for the original half of this double that Chin’s mournful North Carolina Variation represents, using a rhizomatic dictionary, a googleplex of words. Some called this bird pot pot chee in Seminole, or kelinky in Chickasaw, and later “parakeet”—but the last word is a lie. Others settled on the name “conure” in English upon Sir George Peckam’s “discovery” in Carolina while he collected visions across the Atlantic in service of the crown, transcribing it in A True Report of the Late Discoveries of the Newfound Lands (1538). “Gentlemen” birders and naturalists confirmed, reconfirmed, and re-reconfirmed second-hand sightings of the bird as veracious. Catesby-Audubon-Wilson-Townsend-Baird-Nuttal-Cassin-Bonaparte-Lawrence-Coues-Ridgway-Brewster-Bent. Names of supposed discovery were just more words. The bird had already been known unto itself. Winds of the north and south also knew it, recognizing its swaths of green plumage across the sky, and nests in old growth forests knew its engineered warmth
John James Audubon’s nineteenth-century book Birds of America lists the bird as plate twenty-six—Carolina Parrot. Common water, not oil or wax this time, animates the colors of his dead specimen transcribed on the page. They make a little flock: one cocks its head upward, open-beaked towards another ruffling its wings. On a branch below, a bird reaches out for a cocklebur and another looks downward. One looks right at us. These reproduced game met the page before Chin’s re-embodied ghostly variation, but were still preceded by the bird that took flight from South America and before that Antarctica some millions of years ago. Their ancient wings went un-worded into the world. They never heard or read our mumblings. Now, milky and perched on a wooden peg, the bird certainly remembers none of the words it never knew.
Audubon’s graphical illustrations,Mel Chin3
The palette for woven color, a special cocklebur diet,
Yields patterns stretched as grills over acoustic speakers
Set in shard-shaped cabinets.
Consider them coffins, chunks of the large diamond
Lie on the floor resonating
Through the warp and wefted colors,
A specie’s[sic] imagined esprit de corps.
Reconstituted dispirited squawks
As bytes transit through wires
Technological approximation of mating calls
With none living to deliver
And none living to respond.
Consider it a call and response here, “dear reader” (only to Audubon are we dear…), between word and image, parakeet and bird, taxidermy and stories. I heard the bird in Never Forever: The Cabinets of Conuropsis and Chin’s detailed drawing Never Forever: A Wiring Diagram 2nd Installation Study, which depicts infinitesimally connected wires from cabinets to the space and our ears as it depicts a simulation of chirps. The jagged sculptural wooden cabinets are swathed in textiles depicting the bird’s favorite food, cocklebur, as they emit stuffed sound…somehow Audubon’s taxidermized voice rings louder in my head:
The Parrot does not satisfy himself with cockle-burs [sic], but eats or destroys almost every kind of fruit indiscriminately, and on this account is always an unwelcome visiter [sic] to the planter, the farmer, or the gardener. The stacks of grain put up in the field are resorted to by flocks of these birds. . . . They cling around the whole stack, pull out the straws, and destroy twice as much of the grain as would suffice to satisfy their hunger. They assail the pear and apple-trees [sic]. . . . As on the stalks of corn, they alight on the apple-trees of our orchards . . . pluck off the fruits, open them up to the core . . . drop the apple or pear, and pluck another, passing from branch to branch, until the trees which were before so promising, are left completely stripped . . . They visit the mulberries, pecan-nuts, grapes, and even the seeds of the dog-wood [sic], before they are ripe, and on all commit similar depredations. The maize alone never attracts their notice.4
Eater, destroyer, visiter, resorter, clinger, puller, alighter, plucker, opener, dropper, plucker again, stripper, visiter another time, committer. Audubon’s account, and certainly my research here, falls short in explaining their mass death. They were shot in droves, enduring on perches atop then-fashionable hats. It is said when one died, the others would huddle around the fallen, doubling their number in mourning, only for return fire. Records show the last wild bird died in Florida. Later, scientific documents account for their caging—for study, for preserving, for safe-keeping. The Cincinnati Zoo offered barred housing to the last bird, Incas, replacing another last Passenger Pigeon by the name of Martha. Gray-brown feathering with a light crimson chest, Passenger Pigeons had a double too—the Mourning Dove—confused throughout their lifetime for their duetted laments. In that cage, the bird took on these doppelgängers. They shared worded, discovered, and eradicated histories. Separated by four years and never meeting one another, Martha and Incas died in the same cell, both as the only of their kind. Could they sense one another through our ever-uttered words? Did our records matter as much as their colors? Or, did their “dispirited squawks” offer the resounding echo of an answer?
Records show the last wild bird died in Florida. Later, scientific documents account for their caging—for study, for preserving, for safe-keeping. The Cincinnati Zoo offered barred housing to the last bird, Incas, replacing another last Passenger Pigeon by the name of Martha. Gray-brown feathering with a light crimson chest, Passenger Pigeons had a double too—the Mourning Dove—confused throughout their lifetime for their duetted laments. In that cage, the bird took on these doppelgängers. They shared worded, discovered, and eradicated histories. Separated by four years and never meeting one another, Martha and Incas died in the same cell, both as the only of their kind. Could they sense one another through our ever-uttered words? Did our records matter as much as their colors? Or, did their “dispirited squawks” offer the resounding echo of an answer?
Today I held a bird in my hands as it died—a far cry from online research. It was not the lauded osprey, protected in their wooden nests above the Hammonasset marsh grasses, or the feisty red-winged blackbird that wields dominion over vague territories, or the aloof snowy egret slowly searching along the muddy bed.5 It was a common sparrow. The bird flew too close to the window glass, too close to us. As it rested stretched out across my palms, the bird opened its mouth, but there was no sound. And I had no words.
 Mel Chin, “The Bird Is the Word,” published on a wall label in the exhibition Spirit in the Land, at the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, February 16–July 9, 2023.
 Philip Babcock Gove, ed. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1961), unknown page.
 Mel Chin, “The Cabinets of Conuropsis carolinesis,” published on a wall label in the exhibition Spirit in the Land, at the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, February 16 – July 9, 2023.
 John James Audubon, Plate 26 “Carolina Parrot” of Birds of America, National Audubon Society, accessed July 10, 2023, https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/carolina-parrot.
 I am grateful to Aeron Bergman and Alejandra Salinas, of the artistic duo Bergman & Salinas, whose conversations about their research on Audubon, led me to recognize the sparrow as a cultural symbol of freedom. Here, it comes as an ironic promise, in extinction.