Lost with the canebrakes

The Artdog Image of Interest, image 2 of a planned series of 4 by John James Audubon.

Bachman’s Warbler, by John James Audubon and Maria Martin (who drew the franklinia branch–named for Benjamin Franklin). It was engraved by Robert Havell Jr. (from an 1833 watercolor by Audubon) in 1863.

This image is fascinating to me as an artist, as well as because it depicts another bird species that is believed to now be extinct. A look at the cutline shows that this was a true collaboration, between the artist-ornithologist Audubonhis protégé Maria Martin, whom he encouraged to explore her interests in natural history and art, even though she was a woman; and the engraver Robert Havell, Jr., who was descended from a distinguished English family of engravers and artists.

The collection of collaborators and associates extends even farther, however, when you consider that Audubon first learned about this species from Maria’s husband, Audubon’s friend the Reverend John Bachman. Bachman was a Lutheran pastor, but also a social activist and an avid naturalist. He collected specimens and documented four previously unknown-to-science species: not only the Bachman’s Warbler, but also the marsh rice ratBachman’s Sparrow, and Bachman’s Hare, now called a western brush rabbit.

Bachman gave study skins to Audubon, from which he painted the birds; he never actually saw a living Bachman’s Warbler. Part of the reason for this was that they tended to be shy, and they never were what you’d call plentiful. A migratory species, it wintered in Cuba, then ranged northward into the south and southeastern regions of the United States, and liked to breed in swamps or canebrakes.

Bachman’s Warbler, 1906, by Louis Agassiz Fuentes, who was a Cornell ornithologist and strong advocate for scrupulously biologically accurate depictions. The male Bachman’s Warbler (L) was more colorful than the female (R).

Once again, the Macaulay Library has preserved a recording of the bird’s call, made by Cornell’s intrepid Arthur A. Allen (remember him from last week?) and Peter Paul Kellogg. This recording was made in the rain on May 15, 1954 (thus, it is almost 64 years old), at the edge of Ft. Belvoir in Virginia (hint: probably one of the strongest, clearest examples of the bird’s call comes very close to the beginning of the 5-minute recording).

A rare photograph of a male Bachman’s Warbler by Jerry A. Payne, taken in 1958.

Credible reports of sightings became rarer throughout the 1940s through 1970s, until the last credible sighting reported in the 1980s. More recent reports from the early 2000s have not been corroborated. The usual reasons are listed for the species’ decline: primarily habitat loss, exacerbated by some plume hunting, and possibly a devastating hurricane in the 1930s in Cuba that may have destroyed part of their winter range.

IMAGES and MEDIA: Many thanks to the New York State Historical Museum and Library for the image of the Audubon/Martin/Havell print of the Bachman’s Warbler; to Wikipedia for the Louis Agassiz Fuentes painting; to the Macaulay Library for the recording of the Bachman’s Warbler’s song; and to Jerry A. Payne, USDA Agricultural Research ServiceBugwood.org, via Wikipedia, for the 1958 photo of the Bachman’s Warbler. 

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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