End of the Line: Part 1

Recently, I was sent an email by a coworker which included a link to “a gorgeous poster that contains every single bird you’ll see in North America.” It begged a click.

It was indeed an impressive poster, bright, colorful, and many, many species. The illustrations were a bit stylized—if you weren’t already familiar with the birds depicted you may not be able to make an identification of a particular species from the rendered images – but it was an attractive poster and I wouldn’t mind having one hanging on my office wall.

Besides what can be considered strictly North America species, the poster also included Hawaiian species, introduced species, including certain game birds as chukar partridge, ring-necked pheasant, Himalayan snowcock, strangely, a peacock, and a handful of psittacines (parrots and parakeets) which are obviously escapees from captivity that have established breeding colonies.

Most curious though, was the inclusion of extinct, or presumed extinct, species of birds—Bachman’s warbler, passenger pigeon, ivory-billed woodpecker, eskimo curlew, Carolina parakeet, Labrador duck, and great auk. Having these birds included on the poster gave rise to thought. No one is (likely) going to see any of these birds again except in a museum. The passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, Labrador duck, and great auk are long gone. Hope lingers for the survival of Bachman’s warbler, Ivory-billed woodpecker, and eskimo curlew, but even if a few have survived somewhere out there in North America’s swamps, forests, plains or tundra I don’t give much credence to a comeback without very drastic changes, and reversals, in human behavior.

Bachman’s Warbler

Bachman’s warbler was discovered in 1832 by John Bachman (pronounced – bak’ men), reverend and naturalist of South Carolina. He collected specimens near Charleston, SC and sent them off to friend and fellow naturalist J. J. Audubon who named the bird for the good reverend. Although not much is known about its breeding habitat and behavior, the small warbler spent the breeding season in swampy canebrakes and bottomlands of the southeast. Essentially, their range included the coastal plain on the east coast up to Virginia and south and west to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana and up the lower Mississippi and Ohio river basins. The bird wintered in Cuba.

Bachman’s warblers were never recorded as being common (Audubon never saw a live bird). The last known breeding record is from 1937, and the last reported sighting was 1988, although I’m not sure if that sighting was confirmed. I know of one photo, taken in Florida in 1977, which is of what appears to be a female of the species. An effort was made to locate the species in Congaree National Park in South Carolina after a report of the bird being heard and seen there in 2000 & 2001 by what was stated as “an experienced birder.” No birds were subsequently discovered.

I can’t say for sure what it was that caused the decline and apparent disappearance of the Bachman’s warbler but I would bet on habitat destruction as one very large part of the equation, both here in the US and on it’s wintering grounds in Cuba. Whatever resource I tap into on my search for information about this warbler, I come across “canebrake swamps or thickets” as their preferred nesting sites. That habitat just doesn’t exist any longer, at least in the quantity and quality as it once did before swamps were drained and land was cleared for agriculture. I would wager the landscape of Cuba (where the bird winters) has also changed considerably in the past century or two.

If you’re passing through South Carolina and heading down Route #17 through Francis Marion National Forest during April-May and want to have a go at looking for the bird, make a detour through I’on Swamp. I can’t guarantee you’ll see a Bachman’s warbler but you’ll probably see prothonotary warbler, yellow-throated warbler, and northern parula warbler among other neotropical migrant birds. I’ve been to this location at the appropriate time of year when Bachman’s warbler would be present for breeding purposes. Although I had no great expectations of seeing one of these birds, one can’t help but wonder, just maybe. Suddenly, a flash of yellow emerges from the shadows and perches 20 feet up in a tree at the edge of the thicket in front of you. You see a patch of black feathers on the bird’s throat and upper breast as it tilts back its head and sings a buzzy, insect-like song—a Bachman’s warbler. Then, you wake up.

Passenger Pigeon

If you had lived anywhere from the eastern great plains to the east coast of North America during or before the 19th century you may have witnessed one of the greatest spectacles imaginable, the flyover of a migratory flock of passenger pigeons. It may have taken the entire day (or more) for the flock to pass over. The largest flock recorded was estimated at “2,230,270,000 birds (Wilson 1832),” that’s billion. The sound of a passing flock must have been deafening, one could feel it coming long before it arrived, ”a tornado, about to overwhelm the house and everything round in destruction. (Alexander Wilson),” and “The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel. (J. J. Audubon).” The sky would darken as the flocks went over. This unattributed description of one such flight over Columbus, Ohio, in 1855:

“As the watchers stared, the hum increased to a mighty throbbing. Now everyone was out of the houses and stores, looking apprehensively at the growing cloud, which was blotting out the rays of the sun. Children screamed and ran for home. Women gathered their long skirts and hurried for the shelter of stores. Horses bolted. A few people mumbled frightened words about the approach of the millennium, and several dropped on their knees and prayed.”

The entire population of passenger pigeons during that time was believed to be anywhere from 3 to 5 billion birds. The pigeons looked superficially like a mourning dove, although a bit more colorful and about 5 or 6 inches longer. Nomadic, huge flocks would establish nightly roosts, taking diurnal forays into the countryside in search of food during the non breeding season. Their diet consisted of acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts and other nuts, seeds and fruits and berries. Before the arrival of Europeans in North America, the entire country east of the great plains was forest, and passenger pigeons were birds of the forest – they nested, ate, and roosted in forests. The flocks weren’t always as large as described above, and they didn’t occur in the same locations each year, as the supply of acorns and nuts (which itself varies from year to year) were a determining factor as to where the flocks were headed and where they roosted.

Passenger pigeon colonial nesting sites were just as impressive as their roosts. One such site was described as covering “850 square miles,” and the number of birds nesting there was “estimated at 136,000,000.” One can imagine the droppings under such a roost or nesting site? You can be sure that following a feeding, roosting or colonial nesting of these birds the forest understory was dead, covered completely with dung up to a foot or more in depth.

Personally, I’ve witnessed tens of thousands of shorebirds feeding and resting on the shores of Delaware Bay in New Jersey, One hundred thousand or so purple martins leaving and returning to their nightly roost near the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and one million plus blackbirds descending on their nightly roost, all inspiring and moving experiences, but nothing compared to what it must have been like to witness the movement of masses of passenger pigeons.

There’s been much written about the passenger pigeon. The more one reads about them the more incredible the whole phenomenon seems. I personally would have loved to have seen one of the seasonal flights or roosts of these birds, but that will never happen. The birds were extensively shot and trapped for market and the forests that they used for nesting, roosting, and feeding were largely cleared for agriculture before and during the 1800s. The last wild bird was recorded as being shot somewhere around 1900 and the last known captive bird died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden.

To be continued…

1 response to End of the Line: Part 1

  1. jennifer says:

    Thanks for this entry. It really is a breathtaking experience to see huge flocks of birds flying through the sky. It’s something we see less of every year.

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