A Time For Remembrance Of Lost Species: Victims Of An Ignored War – by Nigel Rayment

This article is reproduced with the author’s permission from Huffington Post.

I saw my first Remembrance Poppy last week. It was big, faded and taped to the inside of a cottage window. It had obviously seen several years’ reuse, and it called to mind the time I collected up poppies discarded by my classmates after Remembrance Sunday, not from an urge to conserve, but in a spirit of adolescent provocation. I’d decided to wear one throughout the year and daily replaced those yanked from my buttonhole by scandalised teachers and prefects. I’m a little reproached by that memory as I am by that of my schoolboy self annually fidgeting through the two-minutes’ silence marking Armistice. The remembrance statistics are dismally familiar: over 1.25 million UK military personnel killed since 1914; many times that shattered by injury, trauma or both; just one year since 1945 during which a serving member of Britain’s armed forces has not been killed.

Last month reports of a casualty of a different sort of conflict went viral. Apparently the Great Barrier Reef, a vast living structure, bigger than the UK, Holland and Switzerland put together, had died. Though marine biologists later denounced the obituary as premature, none questioned the assessment of Charlie Veron, former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, that, “We are precipitating the conditions for a mass extinction .. Up near Lizard Island there’s hardly any coral at all. It looks like a war zone.” For years the reef has been under sustained attack on two fronts: from acidification of the ocean, stemming from our relentless pumping of CO2 into the atmosphere, and from declining water quality, caused by run off of nitrogen fertilizers used in intensive agriculture.

And of course corals aren’t the only species besieged by human behaviour. Our erosion of biodiversity has its own dismal and ever expanding set of statistics. Extinction rates are conservatively estimated to be 1,000 times higher than normal; credible research puts the global decline of wildlife at over 50% since 1970; and Megan Hollingsworth of Extinction Witness talks of the human assault on biodiversity as, “a war pushing an estimated 75 to 200 species each day over the sharp edge of extinction.” If it is a war, it’s one that, despite its scale and shocking implications, is largely ignored.

In contrast, the lead up to Remembrance Sunday will bring the military losses of human-on-human conflict into sharp focus. This will include those suffered at the Battle of the Somme, the anniversary of which it is this year. Among the British and Commonwealth men who perished there, a vast number were lost without trace. Though it was impossible to locate their bodies for burial, their 72,000 names are immortalised on the imposing Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. Hollingsworth’s upper estimate for current species extinction per year is a similar 73,000. The vast majority of these species – not individuals, but species – will vanish without any media or public acknowledgement. Nor will governments be commissioning a memorial to them anytime soon.

It was frustration at the collective failure to observe and mourn these colossal losses that in 2010 spurred a coalition of artists and educators to launch Remembrance Day for Lost Species, which now takes place annually on November 30th. If the naming and timing of the initiative looks provocative, it’s not intended to be. Those involved grasp the power of the customs, ceremonies and emblems employed by the Poppy Appeal in memorialising the dead, and see a strong case for a comparable approach to honouring and drawing attention to lost species. Writer Nick Hunt explains Remembrance Day for Lost Species as an opportunity for

“developing rituals for coping with loss as much as it’s about education and awareness. It’s a recognition that telling facts about extinction doesn’t always reach people on an emotional level. We hope Remembrance for Lost Species can jolt people into a different sort of awareness.”

Something needs to. Our species’ talent for denial is a special one. And there is a sense in some quarters that only emotion can help us cross the no mans land between facts and figures, and action. It’s more than 50 years since marine biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, the book that exposed the pervasive poisoning from chemical pesticides, and that is often said to have launched the modern environmental movement. The specific peril of DDT may have been largely erased, but there remains a horrible suspicion of inevitability to Carson’s vision of

“a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

Thinking back to that boy who struggled through a mere two-minutes’ silence, I really hope we humans find a way to truly feel what it is we are doing to our planet; that through our feeling, we act to spare our own offspring a much deeper, far more dreadful silence. In the coming days as the nation pays respect to those who fell in battle, I will also be looking to a future which embraces Remembrance for Lost Species with conviction, a time when whole communities process, lay wreaths, recite poems or enact other rituals out of respect for the species we have killed, and as a mark of our commitment to add no others to the roll; a time when no one will be reproached for wearing a Remembrance for Lost Species badge all year round.

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Crumbling Stag Beetles by Mattias Backlin 

Extinction Mourning Gown – by Sherrell Biggerstaff Cuneo

I started Sew The SEEDS, a project making quilt panels about endangered species with kids, back in 2013. It was an incredibly wonderful and fulfilling experience. At the same time I began making panels of my own for extinct species with the ultimate plan of making an extinction quilt with eight panels. Somewhere along the line I started feeling the burden of the slowness of my process as compared to the speed with which we are losing species daily. As someone who enjoys making, I also began feeling that I was losing the ‘magic’ that I needed to sustain myself and the work. Into this equation crept Agnes Richter.

Agnes Richter was a German seamstress living in an insane asylum during the 1890s. She covered her uniform jacket (it is often erroneously referred to as a straitjacket) in thoughts, pictures, and often undecipherable ramblings. Her jacket, along with the works of other patients, was collected by Hans Prinzhorn, who later published ‘Artistry of the Mentally Ill’.

Agnes’ Jacket is part of the Prinzhorn collection at the University Hospital in Heidelberg. It has a special place for stitchers, and as a piece of outsider art. For me it has always had a kind of magic, exactly the kind of magic I was missing. Here then was a way of back to the magic. Here was a quicker way to record the passings. A name is something. Sometimes something very important. A lament circles the neck, followed by the five previous major extinction events; and then the sixth, the Anthropocene. 666666 etc. The rest to be filled with names. As things progressed, brief stories and thoughts on the process found their way in, and the extinction symbol.

Is this penance, she wonders.


Sherrell Biggerstaff Cuneo is founder of Sew the Seeds community arts quilt project

Remembering Steller’s sea cow – by Jess Tanner

Over the 31 days of October I have been on a journey of remembering the Steller’s Sea Cow, who disappeared from our oceans over 250 years ago. It is at this time of Samhain, the beginning of winter and the thinning of veils that I say goodbye to this dear friend of mine. It has been an honour and I have paid tribute to this gentle, giant creature in the only way I know how. It has been within acts of mark making, stillness and noticing, walking and chance encounters that I have come to know of this great Sirenian. Through simple, quiet gestures of remembering I find a door that is revealing and shifting. It has been an opening for connection and tenderness, a place of loss, and of deep grief.

At the foot of a weeping willow, marking charcoal onto rock, in a harvest of cosmos and calendula is where I find you.


A once free and watery world

This extraordinary species was named after its discoverer, naturalist Georg W. Steller, who accompanied the Great Northern Expedition, 1741 – 42, and recorded his first sightings whilst shipwrecked on what is now known as Bering Island, the largest of the Commander Islands in the Russian far east. The Steller’s Sea Cow, a slow-natured, already vulnerable population, had been hunted to extinction less than three decades later .

Defenceless, harmless, these gracious giants inhabited a once free and watery world, grazing on a rich abundance of seaweeds, kelp and other aquatic grasses. They were the largest members of the Sirenia, an order of fully aquatic, herbivorous mammals, their skin thick, dark, like the bark of ancient oak.

The Steller’s Sea Cow was tame, with no teeth and no manus, no hooks and no claws, soft and placid at every turn.


A shared journey

As my own personal connection for the Steller’s Sea cow grew I became increasingly curious to fnd out what those nearest to me and in my community might imagine this creature to look like. With only a name to go by what kind of imagery would be evoked?. I managed to get into the habit of travelling about with a small sketch book dedicated to the collection of Steller’s Sea Cow drawings. There were many wonderful depictions and imaginings, each and every one with its own unique story to tell.


I see you

Over these last autumn days I have in one way or another tried to mark the life and legacy of this extraordinary species. A simple sketch, a passing thought or chance encounter, the Steller’s Sea cow has never been far from my mind. And as the days have gone by so has the season turned.

I have seen you gently move across the river, your form shimmer on the woodland floor, your tail dancing at the roots of rambling Beech tree. And you, playful you, etched in the pavements that lead me home…   


  Jess Tanner is a Wiltshire-based  artist and environmental educator

Living Planet Report 2016

The 2016 Living Planet Report has just been released by WWF. Prepare for a shocking read.

“The size and scale of the human enterprise has grown exponentially since the mid 20th century with the advent of the new geological era, the Anthropocene. The future of many living organisms is now in question.

Species populations of vertebrate animals decreased in abundance by 58% between 1970 and 2012. The most common threat to declining animal populations is the loss and degradation of habitat. Increasingly, people are victims of the deteriorating state of nature: without action the Earth will become much less hospitable. Humans have already pushed four planetary systems beyond the safe limit of their operating space. By 2012, the equivalent of 1.6 Earths was needed to provide the natural resources and services humanity consumed in that year.

To maintain nature in all of its many forms and functions and to create an equitable home for people on a finite planet, a basic understanding must inform development strategies, economic models, business models and lifestyle choices: we have only one planet and its natural capital is limited. A share understanding of the link between humanity and nature could induce a profound change that will allow all life to thrive in the Anthropocene.”


Dear Anton – by Alex Lockwood

Painting by Linnea Ryshke


Dear Anton,

I need to introduce you again. Introduce again this practice of writing to you every day for 180 days, the industrial lifespan for your species, Sus scrofa domesticus. I do it to come closer to your life. To try, at least. I began the experiment after finishing my book about pigs in industrial farming. I didn’t know happens when you finish a book in which the subjects of your work are killed. I thought about getting a tattoo of you. I felt responsible. I knew I couldn’t just leave you in the machine, treated as a machine. I needed to stay close; I couldn’t just blow you out in my head like a candle.

So here we are. We’ve got an audience. To recap, I’ve told you already in these letters about: who you are, who I am; explained—as poor as those explanations were—what happens to you in the first three weeks of birthing; about my mother, your mother; then onto philosophy, Thomas Nagel, bats, nature, nature writing, how the media represents you (badly); how I am planning to get you out of there.

Today I’m writing about extinction. Specifically, the connection between where you are, in that factory farm in Iowa, or the warehouse-like hangar in China, and the global crisis of species extinction. Extinction, Anton, is the process by which a species, animal or vegetable (and mineral?) is completely wiped out. That it no longer exists, except in memory, fossils and books. Sometimes we humans say “extinct in the wild” to mean we still imprison other individuals of that species somewhere, usually in zoos, mostly so people can stare at them. I know… All of this is alien to you, as your species is caught in an endlessly renewed hell, a regeneration of billions of individuals every year, every half a year. It’s what the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, a friend to animals, especially cats, a philosophical Doolittle—(so much in that name, Doolittle, when it comes to animals)—calls a perverse cycle of anthropocentric power, a constant re-birthing of life so we can kill it, and eat it. Eat you. And at ever growing cost.

Extinction, Anton, is relevant to your existence. Relevant, not least because of the massive numbers in which your species takes up the space of the ever dwindling numbers of other species outside the animal agriculture industry. (This is not your fault.) The question is not whether there is a link between extinction and the industrial animal agriculture that imprisons you, but rather how to make the existing bondage clearer.

Through statistics? What, by simply telling people that slaughter—the violent killing of billions of individuals from a tiny number of unlucky species—is the largest single contributing industry to the greenhouse gases causing climate change? By telling them that it is the major contributor to deforestation (91% of the Amazon clear cut for grazing and soy for feedlots) and loss of wildlife habitat? That it is the industry most responsible for water use and water pollution? That the industrial animal agriculture complex is the way we choose to prop up our growing global population’s calorific needs, even though there are (much) more sensible and sustainable means? That industrial animal agriculture is our manifest sloth and greed: producing meat and dairy that no one needs? In fact, knowing what we know, that the consumption of animal products is slowly killing us through cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, dementia…? The links are all there, Anton. But telling people doesn’t seem to work.

The species that is perhaps most surprisingly critically endangered by industrial animal agriculture, my friend, is us. We humans.

Not that that’s any comfort to you. Quicker, you say. Quicker.

I can hear the arguments against this, Anton. It’s all indirect. Industrial slaughter isn’t directly killing the white rhino. Animal agriculture isn’t directly responsible for the disappearance of the Asiatic cheetah, in the way that hunting was directly responsible for the disappearance of… oh, so many. Okay, no. Industrial animal agriculture is only directly responsible for the 80,000,000,000 (80 billion) land animals it slaughters per annum—one of whom is going to be you—and the 3,000,000,000,000 (three trillion) or so sea creatures. Mostly, they’re replaced. See you next year.

Remember your mother, Anton?

You don’t, I know. But I do.

This is where another concept may be useful: entanglement. That is, we are all entangled in mind–body­–world relations, and that what happens to each one of us can both cause and be caused by changes to the mind–body–world realities of others. Including the nonhuman other. The philosopher Lori Gruen talks about “entangled empathy” and that we need to give our “moral attention” to the other bodies with whom we are already entangled. Perhaps an example: a person who eats the body parts of another is entangled with that other, yes? Benefiting from that being’s energy? So the relation demands a moral attention, right? But when a human being eats the leg of a lamb these days, there is little moral attention given to the relation. Only economic attention. To convenience. Only the luxury of the taste. (I wrote this during #LoveLambWeek.)

Where has moral attention disappeared to, Anton? Why did we stop feeling empathy for the infant sheep whose legs we eat? There is no moral attention given today, Anton, by 98% of the world’s population, to the desires of those of you trapped in that interminable hell, where there is no living, survival is all. There is no recognition of the already existing entanglements between mind–body–world beings. And that’s because no one wants to be re-minded that there was an entanglement with not only the leg but also the mind of a young lamb, skipping with delight, bleating for its mum. No one, that is, Anton (and this is the mess we’ve got ourselves into) who wants to take direct responsibility.

Anton, I feel that I’m failing. I feel like I’m not doing justice here to the issue of convincing people of the connection between animal agriculture’s slaughter of billions, land and sea, year upon year, and that other slaughter of life: extinction. Maybe that’s because we’re all failing, Anton. Failing you, failing the Asiatic Cheetah, failing all of the red-listed creatures. Do numbers work? They’ve been shown not to. But it’s all I’ve got. Today 225,000,000 (225 million) of your domesticated brethren will be slaughtered for food; and 225,000 new humans will be added to the earth to eat that food; and 80 species will become extinct to make way. Just today. Tomorrow, again. Life shoved out by death. The monoculture of a species: homo rapiens, as John Gray calls us.

So, okay. The connection between slaughter and extinction? Or rather, the connector? Imagine it this way. In the middle you have the Great Human Baby that needs feeding if it’s to keep growing (growth is all!), its two grasping hands seeking sustenance. On one side you have a big pile of slaughtered animal products. On the other side you have a pile of those lovely wooden toys in the shape of animals, a child’s Noah’s Ark and its exotic megafauna. But the Great Human Baby needs to eat, so it grabs at either pile, indiscriminately, and like all babies, it will thrust whatever it finds into its mouth. Burger or snow leopard. Pork chop or parakeet. Cutlet or cloud forest. They’re all being consumed by the same source. Consumption here as both literal and metaphor. The shameful thing, my friend, is that we, the parents, the adults, keep shovelling the animals onto the piles, keep loading them up, so the baby can eat and eat and eat. And aged two (remember: metaphor and literal!) it is already obese. Already has diabetes and chronic heart disease.

It’s too much for me, Anton. Too much. And what have I done for you today other than depress you? You in your metal cavern, in the ammonia reek of your middle-age, the waste-stinking runnels, your wretched Iowan life. How has any of this helped you understand the connection between the extinction of species and the death that is looming for you?

Agh. I can’t give in to this helplessness. I am still looking for a way to help you escape. I know this is also what drives those who are working so hard, in conservation for example, to save individual animals who are, unlike you, part of a species not endlessly reproduced for its economic value.

Who’s better off, though? Those endangered lemurs and frogs, or you pigs? And why do conservationists still smother apple sauce on your belly and legs?

It’s a misnomer, isn’t it, Anton, this word extinction? When all we really need to call it is killing. Then perhaps we can see a little more clearly the connection between the two: industrial slaughter and the wiping out of non-economic nonhuman animals and ecosystems. Because to quibble over directness or indirectness is to simply betray an anthropocentric comfort with the question.

Oh, humans are saying, you mean the connection is us?

Oh, too miserable, Anton! Where have I gone with this?

I’ll get you out of there. Ninety four days gone; I have eight six days left. You are over half-way through your industrial lifespan (not 1/40th of your natural life expectancy) but I will use these days well. I just need to persuade 6,500,000,000 (6.5 billion) more humans that they’re already entangled with you too…


Alex Lockwood is a writer living in Newcastle and senior lecturer in the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland. He completed a PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, exploring self-identity, psychoanalysis and affect. His book The Pig in Thin Air explores the place of the body in animal advocacy, and chronicles Alex’s journey around Canada and the United States in 2014, exploring animal advocacy and the animal rights movement there. 


Who killed the Bramble Cay melomys? – by Michelle Nijhuis

Paper cut Bramble Cay melomys by Australian artist Rebecca Edwards

A brilliant article by Michelle Nijhuis for the Atlantic explains that to simply blame climate change for the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys misses the point:

This summer, the Bramble Cay melomys, a reddish-brown rodent that resembles a large mouse, made international news. In mid-June, The Guardian reported that the melomys, last seen in 2009, had been confirmed extinct in its only known habitat, a tiny, isolated coral outcrop in the narrow strait between Australia and New Guinea. “First mammal species wiped out by human-induced climate change,” the headline read. The story, and the declaration, were picked up by publications around the world.

Climate change certainly dealt a blow to the melomys, and very likely the fatal blow. In 1998, about ten acres of Bramble Cay lay above the high tide line; by 2014, only six acres remained above the tide, and rising seas had flooded the entire island several times, killing or damaging most of the succulent plants the species depended on for food. The melomys was last seen alive in 2009, and this past June, a report by three scientists to the Australia’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection concluded that there were no more melomys on Bramble Cay. The last remaining members of the species may have been simply washed away.But did climate change kill the melomys? Yes and no.
Two weeks after its initial story, The Guardian reported that Australian researchers had intended to bring a few melomys back to the mainland to start a captive breeding program. But when their surveys of Bramble Cay failed to turn up a single individual, their rescue mission ended with an obituary. “My colleagues and I were devastated,” the expedition leader told The Guardian.
That missed opportunity, says biologist John Woinarski, was the last act in a tragedy that had been unfolding for years, often in plain sight. In a new paper in Conservation Biology, Woinarski and three colleagues conduct what might be called an inquest into three recent Australian extinctions: the Christmas Island pipistrelle (a small bat), the Christmas Island forest skink (a plain brown lizard), and the melomys. These three extinctions, the authors conclude, “were predictable and most likely could have been prevented.”The pipistrelle was common on Christmas Island until the mid-1980s, but in the mid-1990s its numbers began to decline, and dropped quickly and steadily until the species went extinct in 2009. The skink started to decline at around the same time, and its last representative, nicknamed Gump, died in captivity in 2014. Both species are thought to have been done in by introduced predators, probably the giant centipede and the wolf snake. 
Woinarski argues that the centipede and the snake, much like the rising tides on Bramble Cay, were enabled for years by human neglect and inaction. Australia’s biodiversity conservation law makes no explicit commitment to preventing human-caused extinctions, so species threatened by diffuse or complex threats are often left unprotected, and the protection measures that do exist are frequently inadequate; though researchers began to document the skink’s decline in 1999, it was not officially recognized as critically endangered until 2014, four months before its extinction. The pipistrelle, like the melomys, suffered from a delayed rescue attempt: Its plight was recognized in the late 1990s, but by the time the government approved a captive breeding program, in 2009, there was only one bat left—and that bat, understandably, refused to be caught. These three species were also particularly easy to ignore: They’re small and unremarkable, and they live in some of the most remote places on the planet. They don’t play an obviously important role in their ecosystems, or occupy a unique place in evolutionary history; they’re not beloved by any particular human community or culture. Only their extinction makes them distinctive, and even that is less and less unusual: Australia has the highest rate of mammal extinctions in the world, with 30 species, including the melomys, lost in the four centuries since European colonization.

Woinarski, who lived on Christmas Island just after the extinction of the pipistrelle and during the extinction of the skink, also worked on the recovery plan for the melomys. His assessment, he says, was motivated by personal grief, and by a desire to understand what could be done differently next time. For there will be a next time: Though recent policy reforms have strengthened its national conservation law, Australia and its outlying islands have more than a thousand threatened and endangered species. Those already close to extinction include theChristmas Island shrew, the only shrew in Australia; the Western ground parrot, a shy, bright-green bird that lives on the southwestern coast; and the bridled nailtail wallaby or flashjack, a favorite prey of cats, dogs, and foxes.To say that climate change killed the Bramble Cay melomys, says Woinarski, is “accurate but shallow.” It ignores the many other environmental factors that probably led to its extinction, and it obscures the fact that humans could have saved the species—not only by slowing climate change in the first place, but also by rescuing the species from its effects. People, he emphasizes, could have prevented the extinction of the melomys. They chose not to.


Behind black bird-masks – by Mikael Vogel & Brian Williams

Brian Williams is an artist living in Columbus, Ohio, USA, and Mikael Vogel is a poet living in Berlin, Germany. They frequently collaborate on creative projects focusing on extinct and endangered animals, and will release an illustrated book of poetry in spring 2017.

This is their tribute to the extinct Hawaiian po’o-uli bird. 

Behind black bird-masks

The last three poʻo-uli
Within their three close home ranges (in ʻōhiʻa
Rain forest, on Maui), refusing to leave those, thus
Refusing to procreate in any way. Gone ex-
Tinct November 26, 2004


Hinter schwarzen Vogelmasken
Die drei letzten Poʻo-uli
In ihren drei nahen Revieren (in ʻŌhiʻa-
Regenwald, auf Maui), sich weigernd diese zu verlassen, so
Jede Fortzupflanzung verweigernd. Ausge-
Storben 26. November 2004


Poem by Mikael Vogel. Translated from German by Holden Silverfish


Some information on the po’o-uli

The po’o-uli was discovered in 1973 on the slopes of Haleakalā on the island of Maui. It was the first species of Hawaiian honeycreeper to be discovered since 1923. It was unlike other Hawaiian birds, belonging to an ancient lineage of Hawaiian honeycreepers. No other bird – living or fossil – has a structure similar to it.

By 1997, only three individuals were known to exist. In 2002, one of these, a female, was captured and taken to a male’s home range in an attempt to get them to breed. The female, however, had flown back to her own territory, which was 1.5 miles away, by the next day. There was also a ten-day expedition in 2004. The goal of this was to capture all three birds and bring them to a bird conservation centre on the island, in the hope they would produce offspring.

On September 9, 2004, one of the remaining birds, a male, was captured and taken to the Maui Bird Conservation Centre in Olinda, in an attempt to breed the bird in captivity. However, biologists could not find a mate for the male before it died on November 26, 2004.

The decline of the po’o-uli was due to habitat loss, mosquito-borne diseases, predation by pigsratscats, and small Asian mongooses, and a decline in the native tree snails that the po’o-uli relied on for food.


Bachman’s warbler – by Carrie Laben

Bachman’s warbler (Vermivora bachmanii)

Bachman’s warbler (Vermivora bachmanii), courtesy of the artist, Isabella Kirkland


Sometimes it seems as though the Bachman’s warbler was under a fairy-tale curse from the start. To become invisible, to disappear. John James Audubon never saw one alive, even though he described it for western science; his description and painting of the species were based on specimens shot and sent to him by his friend the Reverend John Bachman. So the bird was lumbered with the name of its killer. But this was not uncommon in those days.

And after that, what? It probably bred in canebrakes, dense stands of bamboo that crop up in damp southern forests, shooting skyward towards gaps in the canopy and dying off abruptly when the plants complete their life cycle. It’s not a habitat where you take one stand and preserve it in a diorama; canebrakes are wanderers, springing up in the wakes of hurricanes and collapses, dwindling when times are good for stately old trees. The Bachman’s warbler was probably a wanderer too. I’ll use the word probably a lot in this post, because the bird was never studied in depth – maybe it wasn’t so dependent on canebrakes, maybe it liked damp old-growth forests intact. At least once, in Mississippi, it nested in an upland forest. In the 1992 edition of Birds in Jeopardy, which gives the warbler a page despite acknowledging that it was possibly – probably? – extinct even then, there is the most poignant of sentences at the conclusion of the entry: “The species is so rare and poorly known that no [recovery] plans have been formulated or put into action.” Besides being sporadic, canebrakes are not friendly habitat for large clumsy mammals; tough to get through, laden with biting insects, a refuge not just for pretty birds but for snakes and pumas. A few plume hunters must have gotten in, because Birds in Jeopardy and other books that mention the warbler (always briefly, always with the caveat that not much is known) list plume hunting as a cause of the bird’s decline. Maybe a few specimens are still lurking on dusty hats in attics.

Was it always rare? That would make a good excuse for why we know so little, and maybe let us off the hook a bit; it was already in decline, it was a little Nell species just too good for this sinful earth. That’s the danger of believing in fairy-tale curses, becoming fatalistic. Except that maybe, as the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, it was actually rather common. Birds in Jeopardy says “the seventh most common migrant along the lower Suwannee River”, an oddly precise canebrake of statistic in a swampy forest of probablies. Conjecture – logging, at that point not yet a wall-to-wall devastation, had opened up more patches of light for bamboo and the bird’s breeding and increased its range, that that was actually the best it would ever get for a yellow-and-green bird with a black chin. Or something else was going on entirely.

Anyway, it declined. The last known sighting is as swampy as everything else: last specimen collected in 1949, last confirmed breeding pair in South Carolina that same year. Unlikely that they were really the last breeding pair, though, because the last photograph is from 1958 and the commonly-cited last report from a ‘reliable’ observer is also from South Carolina, in 1962, when a bird born in 1949 would have been the warbler equivalent of an Old Testament patriarch. In 1977, someone in Florida photographed what could well be an immature female Bachman’s warbler, though identification is notoriously tricky for immature warblers; in 1988 there was a report from Louisiana, the vast damp center of North American ornithological mysteries; in 2001, someone saw a bird in Congaree National Park that was convincing enough to set off an unsuccessful search by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife. And always there was Cuba, known to be the bird’s wintering ground, hidden from North American birders behind a veil of Cold War politics and therefore capable of containing a few lingering survivors of just about anything.

As the years go on, it gets harder to hope, but seems more churlish to pick a date for the tombstone. Maybe the Bachman’s warbler will live on for many more decades in the realm where the ivory-billed woodpeckers and pink-headed ducks and Eskimo curlew live, popping their head back into our everyday world just often enough to keep environmentalists hoping. But that is more fairy-tale thinking. And while fairy-tales are lovely, it’s important to recognize that the real curse here was a practical one; we never could have hoped to preserve what we didn’t bother to understand.

Carrie Laben grew up in western New York and earned her MFA at the University of Montana. She now lives in Queens. She blogs at 10,000 Birds, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such venues as Birding, The Dark, Indiana Review, Okey-Panky, and the anthology Mixed Up! In 2015 she was selected for the Anne LaBastille Memorial Writer’s Residency.


Click to access bachmanswarbler.pdf


Cokinos, Christopher. Hope is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. New York: Penguin, 2009. 27.

Ehrlich, Paul, David Dobkin & Darryl Wheye. Birds in Jeopardy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992. 32-33.

Weidensaul, Scott. The Ghost with Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species. New York: North Point Press, 2002. 17.

Painting a Glimpse of Extinction – by Sophie Gainsley

I’ve been on a journey, accompanied by poet Harry Man (1), to memorialise Britain’s vanishing wildlife.  These creatures, along with countless others, are disregarded as we rush about our busy, hectic lives each day in concrete metropolises.  But outside in the natural, rural worlds which we so heavily depend on for our food, clothing and pretty much everything else, each individual creature is entwined in an ecosystem more complex than we know.  Many are disappearing before we can catalogue and study them – a process critical to learning how to protect them.  Every single one, from microscopic bugs, fungi and the green slime that clings to rocks, to bigger creatures like birds and mammals, are part of a global issue – a mass extinction, the extent of which is hard to grasp.

‘Finders Keepers’

Image: ‘Starry Sky’ from ‘Finders Keepers’ illustration by Sophie Gainsley

Our capitalist, greed-fuelled, unconscious actions of the past centuries have set in motion what scientists are calling ‘The Sixth Extinction’. Put concisely by New York writer Elizabeth Kolbert: ‘Over the last half-billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.’

It is hard to believe this fact, living in a man-made world in our built-up, closed-in cities and towns. But it has been revealed by scientists, that we “…have only identified about 10-15 percent, at most, of existing species. Most types of life are unknown, rendering the great dying crisscrossing the globe eerily invisible to human eyes and silent to human ears,” as Tikkun Magazine states. (2)

The main things which are driving species over the edge ( -some estimates calculate that we are losing up to 200 species a day -) are mass habitat destruction such as deforestation and pollution (3). Trees are being burned and logged at a scary rate. 80% of the world’s forests have already been destroyed and every 2 seconds, an area the size of a football field is destroyed. (4)

Return of the Humpback

But it’s not all doom and gloom!  There are countless amazing conservation projects all around the word and a myriad of dazzling success stories.

Image: ‘Hello World’ illustration by Sophie Gainsley

When first observed by mariners, the Humpback whale was named ‘The Merry Whale’.   Not so merry is the fact that their curiosity and fearlessness made them easy targets for Whale Hunters.  Add to this, their predictable migration routes and what you were left with was a marine massacre.  Humpback populations were ravaged across the globe, so much so, that when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling of Humpbacks in 1966, there were only 5,000 left.  This number may sound like a lot,  but it was estimated in an study published by Global Conservation (5) that Humpback populations were reduced by up to 90% of their original size. There were only a few hundred Humpbacks left in North Atlantic waters, where many traditionally feed on the rich marine ecology during the Spring and Summer.


Advice Whale: poem by Harry Mann, image by Sophie Gainsley

Since then, the Humpback has made an impressive comeback.  They are now 80,000 strong worldwide and went from being labelled ‘endangered’ in 1988 to being considered of ‘least concern’ as recently as 2008.  This is just one of thousands of conservation success stories well worth celebrating!

Our project, Finders Keepers (6), created by Harry Man, aims to also raise awareness of conservation taking place all over the UK.  This includes the protection of habits such as our ancient woodlands and hedgerows which are threatened by the increase of agriculture and which creatures rely on.

The Toothed Threadwort, the Bastard Balm and the Wormwood Moonshiner

As I scrolled down the long list of endangered UK species, some of the more imaginative and entertaining names jumped out.  Among them, I found the quaint ‘Grizzled Skipper’, the ‘Grayling’ and ‘Bastard Balm’, all imaginative names for different butterfly species.  Meanwhile an unsuspecting algae goes by the name of the ‘Toothed Threadwort’ and a ribbed black beetle, the ‘Wormwood Moonshiner’.  Even in the most unlikely of places, the British sense of humour prevails and reminds us of our abundant imagination and creativity.  It is these traits and our ability for forethought and planning which have enabled us to survive against the odds and thrive in most environments across Earth until today.  There is much hope that these same traits will enable us to undo some of the damage we have caused and turn back the clock, to conserve threatened species. Or in the words of David Attenborough, as he beautifully concluded the BBC ‘Planet Earth’ series; “Our planet is still full of wonders and as we explore we gain not only understanding but power. It’s not just the future of the whale that today lies in our hands, it’s the survival of the natural world on all parts of the living planet. We can now destroy or we can cherish. The choice is ours.”


Image: ‘The Woods’ from ‘Finders Keepers’ Illustration by Sophie Gainsley


1 http://www.manmadebooks.co.uk/Harry_Man/Home.html

2 http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/why-extinction-matters-at-least-as-much-as-climate-change

3 http://www.theecologist.org/essays/2986610/extinction_is_forever.html

4 http://onetreeplanted.org/pages/tree-facts

5 http://global.wcs.org/Wildlife/GlobalPrioritySpecies/HumpbackWhale.aspx)

6 http://www.finderskeepers.org.uk/