The Bachman’s warbler was one of the rarest songbirds in North America. It spent part of its migratory time in Florida and was last spotted in Cuba in 1988.
Now, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it is likely extinct.
The bird was among 21 species that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took off the endangered list on Monday, signaling their almost certain extinction. The Mariana fruit bat of Guam, a Texas fish and nine southeastern mussels were also on the list.
The Bachman’s warbler, which had a distinctive bright yellow face and a dark, curved beak, is part of the wood warbler family, which birders characterize by their high-pitch, buzzy “zeep” call.
Not much is known about the species’ history or habitat. Only a handful of images exist of the birds, one being an illustration commissioned by John James Audubon. The Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville has just one preserved carcass in its collection.
The bird was named by Audubon after its discoverer, John Bachman, who first spotted the birds in I’On Swamp near Charleston, South Carolina, in 1832.
Bachman described the bird to Audubon, his friend and collaborator, as “a lively active bird, gliding among the branches of thick bushes, occasionally mounting on the wing and seizing insects in the air in the manner of a Flycatcher.”
The birds migrated across Florida in spring along the Gulf Coast before wintering in Cuba.
The state’s geographic location makes it the “Grand Central Station” for migratory bird species that pass through the peninsula by the millions each year, according to Julie Wraithmell, the executive director of Audubon Florida.
The Bachman’s warbler preferred lowland flood plains with lush, fertile soil. The Everglades was considered its primary habitat in Florida, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The agency said the last confirmed sighting of a nest was in 1937.
Vast swaths of the birds’ habitat were lost over the decades when it was converted to agriculture or developed by humans, who stifled beneficial wildfires that animals like the warbler needed to keep their ecosystems healthy.
These sustained losses meant the Bachman’s warbler population had already been declining for years by the time America’s conservation movement took hold.
”It’s a good reminder that engaging early on a species is really important. It’s cheaper and easier to preserve a species than it is to recover it once it has been significantly impacted,” Wraithmell told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview.
For Floridians, the loss of the Bachman’s warbler is a reminder of the importance of making smart land-use decisions and protecting the natural resources that countless at-risk species need for survival, Wraithmell said.
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Bachman’s warblers haven’t been a common sighting in more than a century, so Monday’s announcement didn’t come as a surprise, Wraithmell said. But that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.
”It’s sad, to think that we’ve lost something so special,” Wraithmell said. “It’s a bird that hasn’t been seen in a long time and it would be easy for folks to ignore it. But it warrants people taking notice.”
Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said this warbler abounded in North Carolina forests until the early 1900s, but clear-cut logging destroyed habitats and signs of the birds all but disappeared. During the late 1800s, collisions with lighthouses were also considered a threat to the species.
In 1967, the Bachman’s warbler was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, though the bird had not been seen in the U.S. since 1962.
“It was most likely extinct, or nearly extinct, before the Endangered Species Act was ever passed,” Greenwald said.
Efforts to locate a member of the Bachman’s warbler species have waned over the years. Extensive surveys between 1975 and 1979 didn’t yield any sign of the birds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 2001, reliable sightings were reported in Congaree National Park, South Carolina. But after 166 hours searching across 3,900 acres of forest, researchers with the National Parks Service gave up on their quest.
“If they were still around, I think it’s pretty likely we would have seen them,” Greenwald said.
While the 21 species delisted Monday were likely already extinct by the 1970s or 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bases its declaration of extinction on “rigorous reviews of the best available science for each of these species,” according to a news release from the agency Monday.
Greenwald said the announcement should be seen as a “wake-up call.”
“We’re essentially undoing the web of life that supports our very existence,” he said. “It really should be a concern to all of us.”