One of the enduring mysteries of North American ornithology involves several species which were painted by Audubon in the early 1800s but never seen again. The most striking and appealing of these birds is the Carbonated Swamp-Warbler, and since the painting was published ornithologists have debated whether this could be a rare and now-extinct species, a hybrid, or merely a fantasy created by Audubon.
I shot the two little birds here represented, near the village of Henderson, in the State of Kentucky, in May 1811. They were both busily engaged in searching for insects along the branches and amongst the leaves of a dogwood tree. Their motions were those common to all the species of the genus. On examination, they were found to be both males. I am of opinion that they were each young birds of the preceding year, and not in full plumage, as they had no part of their dress seemingly complete, excepting the head. Not having met with any other individuals of the species, I am at this moment unable to say anything more about them. They were drawn, like almost all the other birds which I have represented, immediately after being killed; but the branch on which you see them was not added until the following summer.
Despite his definitive statement that he shot two specimens, and painted them from life (well… death), there has always been speculation that Audubon may have invented these birds, or painted them from memory rather than from specimens. Audubon frequently stretched the truth, and many of his untruths are well-documented, although as Jonathan Rosen suggests in a New York Times book review they are “more like the improvisational ”stretchers” of Huck Finn than the calculated inventions of a man on the make”.
While viewing some of Audubon’s original paintings at a New York Historical Society exhibit several years ago I noticed that the paintings ranged from very lovingly detailed (e.g. Carolina Parakeet) to more cursory and simplistic (e.g. Bicolored Blackbird and others painted from specimens brought back by Townsend). It occurred to me that the painting style and quality of details might provide clues to Audubon’s mystery birds. The recent launch of a complete collection of high resolution scans of Audubon’s plates at the University of Pittsburgh (available here) prompted me to take a closer look at this painting.
A brief survey of the painting reveals several factual errors:
- Dark stripes on the back of the lower bird are pointed at the front, broader and diffuse at the rear – opposite of the normal feather arrangement on songbirds
- Median secondary coverts (the shorter wingbar) should have the lower feathers overlapping those above; both birds have these feathers overlapping incorrectly
- Median secondary coverts on the lower bird are too long
- Too much yellow shows in a broad wedge above the forewing on the lower bird, unlike any known songbird; there is no way the feathers painted on the upper bird could be rearranged to look like the lower bird
- Uppertail coverts of the upper bird are shaped and arranged incorrectly
- There is a general lack of detail, a sort of vagueness of structure to the wingtips and tails, both birds lack primary coverts (which should be visible) and the tails are unusually short with very narrow feathers (unlike any known wood-warbler).
One could give him the benefit of the doubt and allow that these could all be due to carelessness or inexperience. I can imagine that there must have been times when he was distracted from his painting by biting insects, weather, hunger, illness, or other concerns. But checking some of his other early paintings (Chestnut-sided Warbler plate 59, Cerulean Warbler plate 49, Purple Finch plate 4, Song Sparrow plate 25, etc) shows that these are all more detailed, with correct arrangement of coverts and streaks. There are always things to nitpick, but in each of these paintings the overall draftsmanship is painstakingly accurate, and smacks of authenticity. The Carbonated Swamp-Warbler painting is subtly lacking, which leads me to conclude that Audubon was probably not looking at a bird as he painted.
This is all merely speculation and circumstantial evidence – weighing possibilities. There is no way to know for certain what Audubon painted (unless the Carbonated Swamp-Warbler were to be rediscovered and confirmed). It’s possible that this species did exist, a hyper-specialized wood-warbler, like Kirtland’s, that was extinguished by the first clearing of forests in the early 1800s. It’s possible that Audubon did see them, and simply painted them poorly. Or that he saw one and tried to recreate it from memory some time later (lying about the two specimens to bolster the credibility of his painting). But given that the only evidence of the species’ existence is Audubon’s painting and written account, that evidence needs to meet high standards. I think the quality of the painting casts some doubt on his claim that he was working directly from two specimens, and then that casts doubt on the existence of the species.