For the Birds Radio Program: Garry Trudeau, Dick Davenport, and Bachman's Warbler
(Recording of Bachman’s Warbler)
Birdwatchers are still reeling from the news that Richard Davenport, from the “Doonesbury” comic strip, is dead at age 87. Yes, we’ve lost the only serious birder with a continuing role in the media– not counting Miss Jane Hathaway, who was a mere caricature, anyway.
Back in November, Dick heard news that a Bachman’s Warbler was sighted in Yosemite and rushed off to see it. Just as he was about to photograph it, he collapsed with a heart attack. Fortunately, he struck one of his famous bargains with God and managed to click the camera shutter before he died–this was the first picture he ever got in focus.
If his photograph is accepted by the American Ornithologists’s Union committee on classification and nomenclature, the official Checklist of North American Birds will have to be amended–an incredible achievement for a fictional character.
Although it’s the rarest songbird in North America, Bachman’s warbler is not a fictional bird, even though none of the Bachman’s warblers found since 1920 have been nesting. It’s strictly a southeastern bird–the song you heard was made in Virginia. So Dick’s Yosemite bird is doubly incredible–no wonder his last word was “Immortality.”
Bachman’s warbler was first discovered by the Rev. John Bachman in a swamp near Charleston, South Carolina. Rev. Bachman must have been a man of persistence and fortitude–the bird’s habitat is virtually impenetrable southeastern swampland, heavily infested with mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks and redbugs. Bachman collected–that’s a polite way of saying shot–two of these warblers, and saw several others in the same locality in 1833. But not a single other Bachman’s warbler was sighted for over fifty years, in spite of intensive searching. Then, in 1886, a Charles Galbraith collected one in Louisiana. He shot 6 in 1887, and 31 in 1888. Galbraith was hardly collecting for the advancement of science–he stuffed them, along with thousands of other birds, and sold them for ladies’ hats. On March 3, 1889, 21 Bachman’s warblers were killed striking the lighthouse on Sombrero Key off the Florida coast. In 1892, Arthur T. Wayne collected 50 on a Suwanee River trip.
Since then, this elusive warbler has been seen on many occasions, but never again in big numbers. It’s a handsome little bird. The male is gray and olive green on the back and yellow beneath, with a black cap and a black patch on the chest. The wings are plain gray, but there is a hard-to-see little yellow marking at the bend of the wing which Richard Davenport’s photograph reportedly shows.
Bachman’s warbler is believed to be close to extinction. Although countless birders and ornithologists desperately want to see one, it’s probably just as well if there’s never another documented sighting–the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is too desperately into captive breeding programs. Last year they captured every last wild California condor, even though not one California condor has ever bred in captivity. I like to think that there’s quite a few Bachman’s warblers still out there, hiding out from the Feds in improbable places like Yosemite, where only Garry Trudeau and Richard Davenport would think of looking for them.
(Recording of a Bachman’s Warbler)
This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”