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.
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.