Until the 1870s, immense flocks of Eskimo Curlews migrating through the Canadian Maritime provinces and New England fattened up on blueberries and fruits before heading to South America (grasshoppers when heading north). Despite its vast numbers, the species was decimated in a 20-year-period and was rarely seen after 1890. Although its last confirmed sighting in the United States was in 1962 in Galveston, Texas, with two unconfirmed reportings in 1981, the Eskimo Curlew is most certainly extinct. After Passenger Pigeons disappeared, market hunters targeted the Eskimo Curlew; with its habitats nearly obliterated by cultivation, the extinction of the Eskimo Curlew’s primary spring food, the Rocky Mountain locust, put the nail in the coffin. If a population still exists, it is very small and highly susceptible to a single catastrophic event. Continued habitat alteration in areas once used as migratory stopovers and mining and petroleum extraction in arctic breeding grounds are also a threat to remaining individuals. Currently, the Eskimo Curlew is protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Audubon painted this somewhat bizarre, if not prophetic, representation in Labrador. He depicted the female dead, while its mate regards it with incredulity, just as humans confront dead members of their species. The work is the sole instance in which Audubon portrayed a dead bird that is not the prey of another. His watercolor is disturbingly prescient and poignant, although Audubon may have been motivated to render this pose in order to display the coloration of the inside of the specimen’s wing.The bird was found and named by Audubon for his close friend the Reverend John Bachman, the Lutheran pastor and natural scientist, who collected the first specimens. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, its last known sightings were in 1977 in Florida and in 1988 in Louisiana. If not already extinct, this warbler is listed as endangered and on the verge of extinction. It fell victim first to the millinery trade, and later the draining of its low, wet forest breeding habitat in the southeast. Even when it was more numerous, the shy Bachman’s Warbler was not easy to observe. Audubon never saw the bird in life and painted it only from Bachman’s specimens, hence the profile poses of both male and female. Its song is a rapid series of flat mechanical buzzes rendered on one pitch. Audubon portrayed Bachman’s Warbler in two watercolors perching on plants that had been drawn first by Maria Martin, who inscribed their names at the lower right. A comparison of the two watercolors reveals why Audubon selected this work for Havell to engrave. In it the two individuals, male above and female below, are easier to see than in the watercolor with the single bird, and the beautiful frankliana plant―discovered in 1765 and named after Benjamin Franklin―is spectacular. Later, he instructed Havell to engrave the plant in 1863.18.12 in plate 390.