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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

GF 6-9-23 – Still In Search of the Lord God Bird

The Singer Tract was the one forest that looked and felt and smelled and sounded as it must have thousands of years before, there was a good chance that every single species that had ever lived in this forest was still there except for the Carolina Parakeet and the Passenger Pigeon – both extinct. Everything else – from the ivory bills, panthers, and wolves to grubs, mites and frogs – was still there.” Phillip Hoose – The Race to Save the Lord God Bird.

I originally posted on this topic a year ago almost to the day. Like many others, the existence of this amazing creature has captured my imagination and heart. The search goes on, as this article in the Philly Voice and this one in the Wall Street Journal highlight. The story of its demise is a story about our hubris, greed and shortsightedness. We are capable of better. We need to make some changes. We are losing biomass at unprecedented rates. The cumulative decline in global animal species is 70% since 1970. We by the way are connected to all of the rest of the web of life. Wisdom would dictate that we would work to preserve the environment for our own wellbeing. We are not always wise creatures, but we have the capacity to do better than we are.

Spoiler alert, bird nerd post today. More specifically, one mythical bird. A bird that all of my ornithology books include a footnote on as long extinct. The Ivory Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), just two feet long with a nearly three-foot wingspan. See the rendering here and just feel why this bird is special. An ancient bird of the old-growth forest in the southeastern US and Cuba. Destruction of its forest habitat caused severe population declines in the 1800’s. Only a handful survived into the twentieth century. It was thought to have gone extinct near the middle of the twentieth century as a consequence of human greed and short sightedness. It was rediscovered in the “Big Woods” region of eastern Arkansas in 2004. This was a mic drop moment in the world of conservation ecology.

I recently finished reading Hoose’s book “The Race to Save the Lord God Bird.” A sad and predictable story linked to cutting down the southern old growth forests to build America. The front porch of our 100-year old home is made out of the unique amber colored old growth Heart Pine that this magnificent bird had called home. Heart Pine trees have a life span of 400-500 years and have a tight growth ring pattern. The relative worth is not even a close call even as the porch does have this amazing, tight grain that gleams in the sun over 600 years after they were mere saplings. Colonist found nearly 100,000 square miles of these forests and the animals who lived in them, from Virginia to central Florida, and on the gulf coast as far west as Louisiana and Texas. These trees are now as rare as sunken treasure. Less than three percent of the original forest of heart pine exists in the US. I would trade my porch deck for a redo of this history.

The Ivory Billed Woodpecker has an amazing ivory colored beak and spectacular plumage. The plumage is why this bird was so highly prized by collectors and its feathers were used in ladies hats a century ago. Hunters ravaged the population of birds, wiping out whole communities of them to put them on fashionable hats. Here is rare audio files and footage of the last birds in the Singer Tract which are now the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. Even as conservationists worked to preserve the only the remaining birds, its fate was set as it was hunted to apparent extinction as WWII started.

So when there were credible sightings of the extinct bird in 2007, including a four second video clip it spawned a massive search across millions of acres of southern US wildlands. We may now have a second chance to save the third largest woodpecker ever to live on earth. As the video shows, the footage documents the tell-tale markings of an Ivory Bill that distinguishes it from its close cousin the Piliated Woodpecker. People coming from all over the world to see if we have another chance to save a really special creature. A chance at a redo. A chance to correct a grave error. The evidence that it has survived or decades after we thought it was extinct are less than encouraging, but not definitive.

Why should I care? Why should you care? I think it depends on our perspective of who we are and what we are doing here. I am harboring no sense that I may ever personally observe one of these birds in nature. But recently I saw four bald eagles in the Delaware Water Gap. I have seen Peregrine Falcons. Snowy Egrets are now commonplace, they nearly went extinct with a few other really beautiful birds because of the plumage trade of the 18th and 19th century. The survival of our national bird, the Bald Eagle and also the Peregrine Falcon only occurred because we saw that DDT was killing them (and us) off so we stopped it. I can go out in nature and see these animals because people who came before me cared enough to save them. Our world will be worthless if all we do is use it up, this is our perpetual choice to make. We have more of a caretaker role than a conquest role in this world. At least this is what I hope we decide.

It does not matter that I will never in my life see an Ivory Billed Woodpecker, I still want it to live. My existence here does not begin and end with my creature comforts. I know many others feel likewise. We are stewards of the land we walk. What we do here is custodial. We can look back on how greedy collectors boated along the Suwanee River in Florida and took out the entire population of birds for a few dollars. How incredibly short sighed that was. It was disgusting. What do we do that looks like that in the lens of future generations?

The saving of this iconic creature matters to me, I hope it does to you too. It matters to a lot of other people who know the odds of seeing on in nature is less likely than being killed by a meteorite. It is our chance to rewrite a pathetic chapter in American history. I am grateful that this may be a possible outcome. I am grateful that conservationist saved the Delaware Water Gap for me to enjoy. I am grateful for the custodial minded people who gifted these things to us all. We should do the same for future generations.

What are you grateful for today?

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