Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: The off-again, on-again extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker

By CHERYL KIMBALL March 17. 2017 11:52PM


TWO WEEKS AGO — before winter thumbed its nose at those who had thought it was over — our backyard pileated woodpecker began his spring hammering on the rotten oak limb not far from our bedroom window. As I have said before in this column, I am simply in awe that this giant woodpecker that I have always coveted and did not check off my life list until I was in my mid-20s not only hangs around our yard, but he and at least three or four of his friends frequent our woods.

With a wingspan of over 2 feet and length between 16-19 inches, the pileated is undoubtedly spectacular. Imagine then the grandeur of the ivory-billed woodpecker — another 2 inches longer than the pileated and a wingspan of almost a full yard. No wonder they require large tracts of land with enormous trees and no wonder, with this kind of habitat now few and far between, the ivory-billed has been considered extinct despite reported sightings and ongoing searches in southern swampland.

One of my favorite books is “The Race to Save the Lord God Bird” by Phillip Hoose (“Lord God!” is apparently what humans tended to say when they saw it). Hoose tells the fascinating and terrible story about the purported extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker — robbed of the territory it needs for survival, much of which was in the southern United States. Large tracts of forests were clear cut in the name of caskets and dams, literally clearing the path to the giant bird’s demise.

Hoose’s book ends with a timeline of “Important Dates for the Protection of Birds, Especially the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.” In 1913: “The Singer Manufacturing Company purchases nearly 80,000 acres of swamp forest (ivory-billed habitat) in Madison Parish, Louisiana, in order to reserve the trees for making sewing machine cabinets.”

By 1939 the Singer company, whose president Douglas Alexander is frustrated with the emancipation of women and their increasing disinterest in sewing and, therefore, in buying sewing machines (“He didn’t care if they bobbed their hair and smoked and danced and drove, couldn’t they just keep sewing?” Hoose says of Alexander) and begins to sell off the Singer Tract in Louisiana to the Chicago Mill Company (makers of caskets and wagon seats). That same year, 25 ivory-billed woodpeckers are assumed to be living in all of the U.S., six of which, including one breeding pair, are confirmed in the Singer Tract.

Just five years later, 1944: the last documented sighting of an ivory-billed in the Singer Tract.

In 1948: “ … find three ivory-bills, including a nesting pair, in mountainous eastern Cuba.”

By the late 1950s, the U.S. and Cuba are no longer on speaking terms and a conservation plan to help save the bird is halted. In 1987, “the last certain sighting of the bird” in Cuba is recorded.

Hoose’s timeline ends in 2002 when a team of international scientists “uses high-tech equipment to search Louisiana’s Pearl River Wildlife Management Area and a neighboring swamp for ivory-bills. They find some signs, but no birds.”

All hell breaks loose in late April 2005 when ivory-billed enthusiast Tim Gallagher and two colleagues announced they had seen a live bird — at that point thought to have been extinct for almost 60 years — in an Alabama swamp. They got video evidence, albeit fuzzy, and audio with the telltale difference in flight between the ivory-billed (which has rapid wingbeats like a duck) and the pileated (which dips and flies like in classic woodpecker style) all almost immediately refuted by skeptics and mostly still considered inconclusive.

Not to Gallagher, however, who knows what he saw; he writes about that heady time in a highly engaging book (published in 2005 by then-Houghton Mifflin) called “The Grail Bird: The Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.” Gallagher’s ivory-billed-searching colleague, Bobby Ray Harrison, was, Gallagher says, nicknamed Sobbing Bobby since he broke down in tears upon seeing the bird. I remember being in my car, hearing NPR Christopher Joyce’s report of the discovery for Radio Expeditions that year, and nearly sobbing myself. Many years before 2005, I began (and still am … ) writing a “coming-of-age” novel based on my childhood best friend who died at 10 of a brain tumor; in my novel, I describe her as being so interested in birds that “had she lived she might have been the person to discover that the ivory-billed woodpecker isn’t extinct after all.” I have been thinking about this bird for years.

Hoose, in his introduction “A Bird of the Sixth Wave,” describes the tragedy of current extinction such as the ivory-billed as unique: “ … according to scientists, 99 percent of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. And there have already been at least five big waves of mass extinction … But the sixth wave, the one that’s happening now, is different. For the first time, a single species, Homo sapiens — humankind — is wiping out thousands of life forms by consuming and altering the earth resources.”

You can learn about the history, search and continuing hope for the survival of this magnificent bird at www.ivorybill.org or The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s site, www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory, titled The Search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at naturetalksck@gmail.com.


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