Bachman's Warbler

Vermivora bachmanii

(c) US Forest Service
  • Wood Warblers
  • Passeriformes
  • Chipe de Bachman
  • Paruline de Bachman

Since Western science discovered it in 1832, the Bachman's Warbler has been elusive for ornithologists and birdwatchers. Given that the last individual was confirmed alive in 1961, the Bachman's Warbler is probably extinct. A bright yellow-headed songbird with a black crown and throat patch, this insectivore preferred nesting in shrubs in bottomland hardwood forests and wintered in Cuba – a combination that rendered it extremely vulnerable to habitat destruction.

Appearance Description
The adult male Bachman's Warbler sports a distinct and attractive plumage. The forehead, throat, side of the neck, and belly are yellow. The upper parts are mostly olive to olive green, with olive reaching into the cheek and the nape, which sometimes shows a little grey. Black adorns the fore crown and the breast. The females require more skill and patience to identify. They are mostly olive above and yellowish below, with an olive wash across the breast. Both sexes have black eyes and dark bills, with a slight droop. This warbler is a small songbird, measuring about 4.25 inches long. A living Bachman's Warbler has never been weighed.
Range Distribution
The historic distribution of the Bachman's Warbler cannot be reconstructed. The breeding range may have covered a far greater area than the few locations recorded in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Reportedly, it bred in northeastern Arkansas, southeastern Missouri, southwestern Kentucky, central Alabama, and southeastern South Carolina. It occurred with some regularity on the southern Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains, with inland extensions up the flood plains of major rivers. The confirmed wintering range covered Cuba and the Isle of Pines. Migration was recorded along the Gulf Coast and through the Florida Keys and Bahama Islands.
Bachman's may have bred in the drier parts of bottomland swamps, higher in the floodplain. Dominant trees in this habitat include sweetbay magnolia, swamp tupelo, sweetgum, blackgum, water oak, willow oak, and red maple. One theory is that this warbler needed openings in the forest canopy, which allowed thickets of blackberry, cane, and palmetto to emerge. Other ecologists argue that it used mature bottomland and some upland forests. Winter and migratory habitats may have been open to most forest types general, but lowland forests were probably used the most.
It probably consumed insects and arthropods most often, but fruits, flowers, and other vegetation may have supplemented the diet on the wintering range. Bachman's Warbler probably foraged in understory thickets by probing leaves and bark with its curved bill and plucking insects from plants. The only specific foods that have been identified are caterpillars and spiders.
Over a hundred years ago, just a few observations were made of its breeding biology.
About 2 feet above the ground, the nests were hung from shrubs and were entirely hidden by the shrub's spring growth. Holding 3-5 clean white eggs, the nests were made of cane, Spanish moss, lichen, dried grass, and dead leaves. Apparently, both parents fed the young. The only two fledglings ever observed were killed and collected by an ornithologist.
Few data and observations exist. Bachman's Warbler appears have been an early spring migrant and reached Florida in late February. It also migrated early in the fall, when most observations were made in Florida between July and August. Migration probably occurred at night.
  • probably 0
  • probably 0
  • Endangered
Population Status Trends
The story of the decline of the Bachman's Warbler is mostly conjecture because it slipped toward extinction before modern, range wide census techniques were used. Apparently, Bachman's was a common, regular species of southern bottomland hardwood forests during early U.S. history. Populations may have increased in response to early logging of these forests, which allowed cane break habitats to flourish, and then decreased with the loss of large tracts of suitable habitat in the 19th Century. However, some breeding populations were still reported as fairly common in places like Arkansas' and Missouri's Sunken Lands. These remnants quickly disappeared. Between 1975 and 1979, 7,000 hours of searching across 20,000 acres of its U.S. range could not produce one sighting of the Bachman's Warbler.
Conservation Issues
Finding the likely reasons for the decline of Bachman's Warbler is guess work. No governmental or private conservation group works to protect it, now. Its probable demise follows a familiar pattern of human indifference to nature coupled with a dynamic environment, made unstable by industrial development. Unconfirmed reports have been circulated as recently as 2003, and remnant patches of habitat need to be surveyed.

Although this warbler was listed as Endangered in 1973, little was ever done to conserve or rehabilitate its habitat. More than 75% of the Mississippi alluvial valley has been converted to nonforest land uses. In a similar scenario in Cuba, over 85% of the land has been deforested, though some suitable habitat does still exist. The population decline in the 20th century can be at least partly attributed to hurricanes on the wintering grounds that may have reduced the remaining population to such an extent that it was no longer viable. Bachman's may also have been dependent upon canebrakes in the tropics, which were one of the easiest, and therefore first, habitats to be cleared.
What You Can Do
While not much can be done to bring back the Bachman's Warbler, we need to ensure that other birds do not reach the same fate. Support the active conservation of birds on the Threatened and Endangered Species List. Become familiar with those species which are heading for trouble, but do not yet receive official help.

Join conservation efforts to preserve North America's remaining river bottom forests and to restore these forests on a landscape level. Look for local efforts like the River Bottom Restoration Project  directed by Living Lands and Waters in East Moline, Illinois. This non-profit group has been recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its work. 

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.
More Information
Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources.
Natural History References
Dun, Jon L. and Kimball L. Garrett. A Field Guide to Warblers of North America. The Peterson Field guide Series. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

Hamel, P. B. 1995. Bachman's Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii). In The Birds of North America, No. 150 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Conservation Status References
BirdLife International (2007) Species factsheet: Vermivora bachmanii. Accessed 31 August 2007.

Hamel, P. B. 1995. Bachman's Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii). In The Birds of North America, No. 150 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.