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Tag: Cornell University

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, via Wikipedia, for the 1958 photo of the Bachman’s Warbler. 

The elusive Ivorybill

The Artdog Image of Interest, Image 1 of a planned series of 4 by John James Audubon

John James Audubon, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis (1827-1838), hand-colored engraving. Male on the left, female on the right.

I’ll never forget the day my mother thought we’d seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker at our backyard bird feeder. I was a little kid: I’d never heard of one, before. And it was the biggest bird we’d ever seen at the feeder.

It wasn’t an Ivorybill, of course. This was sometime in the 1960s, and the last confirmed sighting had been in 1944.

Pileated woodpeckers (top) compared with Ivory-billed woodpeckers.

Eventually, Mom reluctantly decided it probably had been a Pileated woodpeckerwhich was marked similarly, but somewhat smaller in body length (Ivorybills have been reported up to 20 inches [51 cm] in body length; Pileated top out around 19 inches [49 cm] long), without as much white on their backs, and with a darker bill.

It may only have been one afternoon’s excitement at the time, but I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the species ever since. I was very interested when possible sightings were reported in Arkansas in 2004-5, and in Florida in 2006.

But it’s hard to get sightings confirmed. If they do still exist, Ivorybills live WAY back in the most remote swamps you can imagine (habitat loss was the main reason for their decimation). The way there is literally “fur [far] an’ snakey,” as my grandparents used to say. A great many of the experts in the field remain unconvinced that there are still any Ivorybills out there somewhere. I sincerely hope that eventually it is found they do still exist. But I’m not holding my breath till it happens.

And let’s PLEASE not follow the example of Mason Spencer, who in 1932 proved there were still Ivorybills along the Tensas River in Madison Parish Louisiana by shooting onethen bringing it back to the state wildlife office in Baton Rouge! Even more awful is the story from 1924, when Cornell University ornithologist Arthur A. Allen discovered what he feared might be the last nesting pair in Florida. Once word got out, a couple of taxidermists promptly went out and shot them (presumably to sell their stuffed bodies). Yes, we’re demonstrably a gun-loving nation, but can we please think first?

Granted, it would be hard to haul the photographic equipment of the 1920s and 30s back up into the woody swamps to prove they still existed, but Cornell’s intrepid Dr. Allen, accompanied by several colleagues, managed it in 1935, when he photographed and recorded the sounds made by a nesting pair in and area of old-growth forest known as the Singer Tract in Louisiana (Mason Spencer’s neck of the woods, actually).

Two photos made in April 1935 by Arthur A. Allen in the Singer Tract, Madison Parish, Louisiana. These are among the last and best photographic images of wild Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. A breeding pair is shown here with their nest-hole. That’s the male departing to hunt, upper L, and returning, lower R; his mate looks out from their nest.

For a trip back in time to 83-years-ago-this-Monday (the recording was made April 9, 1935), here’s the recording Dr. Allen made of the Ivorybill pair shown above and below.

I I think it’s worth a look at the comments section of the Macaulay Library’s webpage devoted to the recording, too, but I’m kind of a geek.

Two more photos by Arthur A. Allen taken in April 1935: at left, the male Ivorybill emerges from the nest hole after the female returns from hunting. At R, the female takes over nest-guarding duties while her mate takes his turn.

The Singer Sewing Machine Co. later sold the 81,000-acre Singer tract to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. Despite efforts to secure the irreplaceable virgin forest for a nature preserve, Chicago Mill and Lumber logged whole thing. It’s where the last known-for-sure Ivorybill, a female, was seen in 1944 by Don Eckelberry, an artist working for The Audubon Society.

If you’ve ever questioned why some folks think public land in nature preserves shouldn’t be opened for exploitation by private logging or mining concerns, just think about the Singer Tract, and the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, who apparently thought their ephemeral profits were more important than some stupid bird.

If you’ve ever wondered why some people think it’s important to make it illegal to kill specimens of endangered species, just remember Mason Spencer and the Florida taxidermists. We may (probably) have lost the marvelous Ivory-bills, but there are many other endangered and critically endangered species now. Which ones will disappear on our watch? How many will we save?

IMAGES: Many thanks to Audubon Galleries for the photo of the Audubon Ivorybills; to Wikipedia for the field marks comparison of Pileated with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and the four 1935 photos of the nesting pair by Arthur A. Allen; and to the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library website for the recording of nesting Ivorybills calling and rapping.

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