Ivory Billed Woodpecker - Faith, Hope and the Ivory Billed Woodpecker
Ivory Billed Woodpecker
Does the Ivory Bill Still Live?
One April morning in 2005, millions of Americans stood in their kitchens with their morning coffee and paused before their radios, for a few moments held spellbound as NPR broad-casted an audio clip of the search for the Ivory billed woodpecker. It was the distinctive sound of that enigmatic birds' double rap and the possibility that what was lost was found again. The Ivory Billed woodpecker, believed to be extinct in the continental US may yet live on in isolated pockets of southeastern bottom-land forests.
Never a common bird, the Ivory Billed woodpecker has been called the Ghost Bird, the Grail Bird, and the Lord God Bird, because that's what you'd say if you saw one. Larger than a Pileated woodpecker, with an ivory bill, and brilliant white edging on the wings, the Ivory Bill has fascinated birders for well over a century.
This magnificent creature of southern river edges was a trophy for 19th century specimen collectors, a good meal for impoverished subsistence farmers, and a source for charms for Native American hunters.
After the Civil War, northern timber companies invaded the south, devastating old growth forests that were home to the elusive bird. As farmland encroached upon the ivory bill's habitat, swamps drained, and the ecosystem that harbored the ivory bill destroyed, sightings of the bird became more infrequent. In some circles, the announcement of a sighting of an ivory bill will be met with greater skepticism that if you claimed you were swept up by a flying saucer.
Ivory Bill History
On December 14, 1820, James Audubon saw 5 Ivory Bills together and concluded that they were social birds. He described them as graceful and that
"the transit from one tree to another is performed in a single sweep, and the bird appears as if merely swinging itself from the top of the tree to that of the other, forming an elegant curved line."
In the days of James Audubon, naturalists studied individual species through specimen collection. In other words, they killed them in order to study them. Interest in birds for collectors, museums, and feathers used in the fashion industry had a terrible impact on the American bird population. Decline in the Ivory Bill population was noted as early as the 1880's.
Timber companies and large scale agriculture, swamp drainage, and damn building wreaked havoc on the ivory bill's habitat. It is believed that precolonial southern bottom-land hardwood forests once covered 52 million acres of the southeastern United States. By 2005, less than 5 million acres remained.
After the Civil War, the federal government sold vast tracks of southern hardwood forests to logging interests. Timber loss increased during the high demand for lumber at the time of World War I.
Following the terrible Mississippi flood of 1927, the federal government created a system of levees to reduce future flooding and further decimated the ecosystem
The Ivory Bill disappeared from North Carolina in the 1930s and 1940s during the construction of the Santee - Cooper Hydro-electric project.
Further devastation ensued after the invention of chain saws that allowed for and encouraged clear cutting of forested regions. Between 1937 and 1978, bottom-land hardwood forests of the southeastern US declined by 6.6 million acres. The alteration of flooding cycles, dams, and drainage projects ravaged the ivory bill's habitat in the 20th century.
James Tanner's classic study between 1937 and 1939 in the Singer Tract in Louisiana produced the most thorough modern example if the Ivory Billed woodpecker. He observed Ivory Bills and described their strong, direct flight with rapid wing beats similar to that of a pintail duck. The flight ended, he noted, with a quick upward swoop similar to that of other birds. Long distance flight took place above the forest canopy. He noticed their flight was noisy, producing a clattering sound.
Between 1979 and 1987, large tracts of Ivory Bill habitat was lost to a sudden increased demand for soybean production.
Today, old growth cypress forests of the south are used in the production of cypress mulch, huge old trees ground up for mulch.
After 1900, the fashion industry used less bird products due to public sentiment against bird collecting but the loss due to industry, agriculture, and drainage projects rang the Ivory Bill's death knell. By the 1960s, the largest, most ostentatious woodpecker in the the United States was thought to be extinct.
Ivory Billed Woodpeckers
Ivory Bill Identification
The Ivory Billed woodpecker is, or was, the largest woodpecker in the United States. The ivory bill
- has a black chin
- a striking ivory bill
- white scapular lines when perched
- in flight - white trailing edge of wing, black center wing bar, and white leading edge
- Ivory Bills have a direct flight pattern and show a longer tail than a pileated woodpecker in flight
- female Ivory Bills have a black crest
Compared to the Pileated Woodpecker's
- white chin
- black trailing edge of wing in flight
- flies in an undulating manner
- female has a red crest
Ivory Bill Field Marks
An Ivory Bill Sighting Can Earn You a Bad Reputation
Naturalists, outdoorsmen, backwoods folks, fishermen, hunters, and a small contingent of birders and die-hard romantics questioned the grim finality of extinction. Ornithologists divide into opposing camps - those who believe the Ivory Bill is gone and those who hope that a few hang on in isolated pockets of southeastern hardwood bottom-land. the extinction proponents feel that even if a few Ivory Bills remain, population reduction would have all by eliminated the genetic diversity needed for the species to survive.
In 1935, Arthur Allen and Peter Paul Kellog recorded the Ivory Billed woodpecker's now famous double rap as well as their toy trumpet-like vocalizations. Where most woodpeckers pound on trees in a rapid rhythm, the Ivory Bill's heavy pounding sounded more like a loud BAM followed by a lesser strike that sounded almost like an echo.
Allen and Kellogs' recordings have been questioned, as if all evidence of the Ivory Bill. Vocalizations sound like a child's tin trumpet and have been called a 'kent,kent,kent' call.
George Lowery produced what he believed was photographic evidence (the picture taken by someone else) of a living Ivory Billed woodpecker in 1971, though he refused to disclose the exact location of the shot. Many prominent ornithologists claimed that the pictures were faked, that someone had climbed a tree and placed a stuffed or artificial Ivory Bill on the tree trunk.
In 1999, David Kulivan, a forestry student at Louisiana State University, claimed that he spotted a pair of Ivory Bills when he was hunting turkey in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area of Louisiana. He was called a pathological liar by some, while others said that he had been hallucinating.
Nancy Higgenbottom, a biology instructor at Southeastern Louisiana University, reported 2 sightings of Ivory Billed woodpeckers in 1986 and 1987 near the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area in Louisiana. In 1986, sitting outside a restaurant, she and a companion saw a bird that they had never seen before. It was, she said, big as a chicken. It was larger and more stunning than a Pileated woodpecker. For 2 minutes, she observed the bird from a 50 foot distance and was shocked by its size and remarkable coloring - a male Ivory Billed woodpecker.
In 1987, she spent most of one day sitting quietly in a deer stand and sighted a female Ivory Billed woodpecker with the unique black crest enter a hole in a tree. The bird left and returned several times. Few believed her and she was called crazy.
Jay Boe, a duck hunter and outdoorsman, reported 5 Ivory Bill sighting in 1982, 1985, 1988, 1989, and 2002. When he told the land manager of the private property, the area was subsequently logged. His reports fell on suspicious ears and he feels that his claims were given the brush-off.
Hearsay evidence indicates that some people who believe they have seen an Ivory Billed woodpecker have refused to report their observations, fearing scrutiny, unwanted attention, and government interference, including land grabs by the federal government. Some folks stand silent fearing ridicule. Others keep quiet in order to protect the bird. Some bird watchers, ornithologists, and people in the biological sciences are said to keep silent in order to protect their reputations.
Saying that you've seen an Ivory Billed woodpecker is like saying that you've seen Sasquatch. Even to claim belief in the existence of the ivory bill is to incur disdain and be viewed as a crackpot.
Cache River National Wildlife Refuge 2004
On February 11, 2004, kayaker Gene Sparling saw a bird he had never seen before at the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. Late winter and early spring is a great time to go bird watching. The lack of foliage allows for distant viewing and you don't have to deal with reptiles and insects.
Sparling reported a description of the large woodpecker on a web page and drew the interest of Tim Gallagher, the director of publications at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Professor Robert Harrison of Oakwood College in Huntsville Alabama. Harrison, a true believer, had searched off and on for the Ivory Bill for 30 years.
A subsequent sighting by the Gallagher and Harrison on February 24, 2004, set in motion the most intense search for the Ivory Bill in history. Led by Proffesor John Fitzpatrick of Cornell University, the team was made up of individuals from the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other including many volunteers which resulted in 5 more Ivory Billed woodpecker sightings.
On April 25, 2004, David Laneau, part of the search team, captured an Ivory Billed woodpecker on film in flight past Laneau's kayak. Like all photographic or audio evidence of the Ivory Bill, this 4 second film created hot controversy.
The Louisiana Nature Conservancy instituted a search in 2005 due to the number of Ivory Bill sighting reports in and around Patterson Louisiana in the past several decades. Several outdoors-men, experienced birders, and ornithologists observed and described brief sightings of large woodpeckers with white on the underside of the wing, strong, straight flight, a brilliant white on the trailing edge of the bird's wing in flight.
The Ivory Billed woodpecker, thought to be extinct, its loss mourned by naturalists and school children studying ecology and extinction, a ghost rarely thought about by most Americans came back in a big way.
On the morning of April 28, 2005, NPR (National Public Radio) began a series on the quest for the Ivory Billed woodpecker. The sound of the Ivory Bill's double rap sounded in countless kitchens. Hands paused, the coffee halted on the way to lips. The crinkle of lunch bags being folded fell silent. Ringing phones went unanswered.
Hope springs eternally in the hearts of Americans. The very suggestion that maybe, just maybe, the Ivory Bill lives on, that a magnificent creature once thought extinct lives on, tore at the hearts of people everywhere. And bright morning faces washed with tears because beautiful, natural, gone America may yet exist on the wings of the Ivory Billed woodpecker; the symbol of all our stupidity, greed, and excess might remain wild and elusive - what was lost, now was found. Just maybe.
John Fitzpatrick, Director of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology speaks on the Ivory Billed Woodpecker
Ivory Billed Woodpecker - Books
- In Search of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (2004) by Jerome Jackson. Jackson reviews and updates James Tanner's classic study of the Ivory Bill and recounts past searches. the ivory bill is presented in popular culture including posters, stamps, and other artifacts. Jackson is somewhat skeptical of the Arkansas sightings and video and feels that the release of the information was timed to arouse interest in Tim Gallagher's book about the bird.
- In Stalking the Ghost Bird(2008), Michael Steinburg, an assistant professor at the New College and Department of Geography at the University of Alabama writes of ongoing debates of the Ivory Bill's status and various searches in Louisiana, the stomping ground of James Tanner and John James Audubon. Several expeditions and reports are explored as Steingburg creates a time line of sightings and controversies.
- Grail Bird - Hot on the Trail of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (2005) was written by Tim Gallagher, the Cornell ornithologist who, along with Bobby Harrison, participated in the Cache River, Arkansas search for the Ivory Billed woodpecker. His book gives the reader a front row seat and behind the scenes look at the Arkansas search from it's inception and recounts other searches and anecdotes of ivory bill lore. This is the one to read if you like to shed a tear or two while engaged in an adventure story of a classic quest.