- The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed removing 23 species like the ivory-billed woodpecker from its list of endangered species ‘due to extinction.’
- Among these is the Bachman’s warbler, a beautiful yellow bird last seen in the late 1980s.
- “Of all the areas of environmental degradation, biodiversity loss cannot be undone. Now is the time to raise our voices in support of global biodiversity agreements,” argues the author of this opinion piece.
- The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Last month, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced that it was proposing “to remove 23 species from the Federal Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants due to extinction.” Among the species selected for “removal”— the cold, bureaucratic term hiding a history of destruction and death — is the diminutive Bachman’s warbler (Vermivora bachmanii), a beautiful, yellow-rumped, black-capped bird with olivaceous plumage, whose status will now, by official fiat, change from being the rarest songbird in the United States to being a non-existent one.
Sobering news indeed, though Bachman’s warbler, easily overlooked, is hardly material for the front page. And it’s not quite final yet: technically, there is a 60-day public comment period during which the public can protest the decision. Yet, barring new evidence of a miraculous sighting, no one expects that little bird to claw its way back from being extinct to the dubious honor of just being endangered. Like other bird species recently declared extinct, Bachman’s warbler, once at home in the bottomland forests of the Southeast and, during the winter, in Cuba, fell victim to what kills so many birds—habitat destruction (along with hurricanes in Cuba). Bachman’s warbler was last seen in 1988.
Why lament the disappearance of just one species, however pretty? The history of our planet has been marked by extinctions. Even as we now worry about what Subhankar Banerjee has called a “full-scale winnowing of vast populations of the planet’s invertebrates, vertebrates, and plants,” the fact remains that so many organisms are still waiting to be discovered. Scoop up a handful of dirt, the entomologist E.O. Wilson once mused, and you are holding billions of micro-species yet unknown to humans. And what is death in nature anyway? Darwin, more than 150 years ago, quipped that it was no big deal: “It is generally prompt, …no fear is felt, and the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” But do they?
Bachman’s warbler hadn’t been known to us for all that long. Several articles covering the USFWS announcement mentioned that the bird was first documented in 1833, by John James Audubon (1785-1851), the famous French-American naturalist. His drawing of a male and female Bachman’s warbler served as the basis for plate 185 of Audubon’s massive collection of engravings, The Birds of America (1827-1838), one of the most expensive and spectacular works of natural history ever published.
As it happens, Audubon himself has also been in the news recently, and not in a good way. Born in 1785 in Les Cayes, Haiti, where his father owned a plantation, we know that Audubon, at least for a while, enslaved human beings, too. Even if the biographical evidence does not support the contention that Audubon was, like his half-sister Rose, mixed-race, it’s important to remember that Black people were involved in, and labored for, the making of The Birds of America: they kept house for Audubon, hunted for him, or acted as his wilderness guides. A prodigious killer of birds (he needed, after all, specimens for his art), Audubon is, even if we ignore his slaveholding, a problematic role model for the modern environmentalist. I bet he would have been surprised to see his name attached to the Audubon Society.
Of course, he was, first and foremost, a great artist, perhaps the greatest of natural history painters. Just look at his famous representation of the bald eagle, cowering somewhere high up in the mountains, his right talon digging into the limp body of a dead catfish, or the bunch of cackling, squabbling Carolina parakeets he painted feeding on cockleburs, or the family of ivory-billed woodpeckers he shows perched on a dead tree, playing peek-a-boo with an unfortunate beetle, slated to become their dinner. Scientifically, these vibrant images contain a wealth of information about bird behavior; historically, they have helped us imagine birds not as objects of scientific inquiry but as deeply engaged in, and enjoying, their lives. In fact, Carolina parakeets, extinct since 1918, live on to this day in Audubon’s colorful, much-reproduced engraving. And if some die-hard admirers are still holding out hope for the majestic ivory-bill, also included in the depressing line-up just released by the USFWS, perhaps some of the credit goes to the lively scene Audubon painted 200 years ago.
By such standards, Audubon’s portrait of the unassuming Bachman’s warblers isn’t one of his best works. The little birds just sit there, away from each other, the male posing closer to the center of the picture and the female cowering on a branch right at the bottom, as if aware of her inferior rank in life. Their colors — a subtle symphony of yellow, green, black, and grey —blend with the colors of the shrub included in the picture, making them a little hard to spot, as if Audubon were playing a game with us: “Find the bird in this picture!”
If the warblers seem almost dead in Audubon’s engraving, that’s because they already were. “Drawn from life by J. J. Audubon,” we read at the bottom, the usual attribution in The Birds of America. But in this case at least, that wasn’t true. Bachman’s warblers, as the name suggests, were discovered and described by Audubon’s friend and collaborator, the Charleston clergyman and naturalist John Bachman (1790-1874).
Bachman, too, owned slaves, and even though he was a competent enough scientist to reject contemporary arguments that there were biological differences between the races, he also believed they had to be kept separate. In animal nature, Bachman found a pleasure that human society didn’t always extend to him. He loved these new birds, which were, he told Audubon, so “lively” and “active” while “gliding among the branches.” But his tender feelings did not prevent him from killing these birds. Audubon gratefully received the skins and named the species, new to science, after his friend. Never mind that these birds weren’t Bachman’s or, for that matter, anyone else’s.
Since he had never seen them in the wild, Audubon went ahead and invented an appropriate background for them. From what we know about them now, Bachman’s warblers were happiest in low, wet, forested areas in the southeastern U.S. Yet the plant Audubon asked his illustrator, John Bachman’s sister-in-law Maria Martin, to add to the picture wouldn’t have grown there.
See related: Spix’s macaw returns to Brazil, but is overshadowed by controversy
Martin’s superbly drawn Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha— Audubon knew it as Gordonia pubescens), with its glossy leaves and showy flowers, was, when she drew it, very likely already gone from the wild. John and William Bartram had found it near the Altamaha River in 1765; when William returned to the area a few years later, collected some seeds, and proposed naming the shrub after Benjamin Franklin. And then, just like that, in no time at all, it vanished, another victim of habitat loss. Whatever specimens were alive in 1833, like all Franklin trees growing today, had come from Billy Bartram’s seeds. Efforts to re-wild it have not succeeded.
Revisited in light of last month’s poignant announcement by the USFWS, Audubon’s old plate, showing warblers he’d never seen, sitting on a tree erased from nature, assumes new and urgent significance. Overtly tranquil, his picture comes from a world that was already deeply disrupted, shaken to the core by the damage humans were doing to plants, animals, other humans. Some of us would still like to believe that, as St. Matthew tells us, no sparrow falls without the Father’s knowledge —that, in the end, all will be well.
But the tangled lives, or deaths, of Bachman’s warblers and the Franklinia in Audubon’s picture tell a different, more complicated story. They remind us that extinction happens before we know it, in bits and pieces, with just one more possible sighting here and another one there, as if nothing were inevitable yet, as if the narrative could still change. But with more than 1,300 species currently considered endangered or threatened in the United States alone, we don’t have the luxury to wait.
Bachman’s warbler is the Spix’s macaw of Brazil or the pink-headed duck of India or the San Cristóbal vermilion flycatcher of the Galápagos. Each species gone is a preview of our own potential demise as a species.
Confronting that reality is not fear mongering – advocating for what is left is a moral obligation. We don’t need signs – a crash in the woods, a final cry of pain, corpses washed up on a beach, or an official announcement – to confirm that nature is dying around us. Of all the areas of environmental degradation, biodiversity loss cannot be undone. Now is the time to raise our voices in support of global biodiversity agreements. Otherwise we might find that famous narrow window of opportunity, half-closed even in Audubon’s day, already shut and locked for good.
Christoph Irmscher is the editor of the Library of America edition of Audubon’s Writings and Drawings and the co-editor, with Richard King, of Audubon at Sea, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Biologists warn ‘extinction denial’ is the latest anti-science conspiracy theory, listen here: