In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Jerome Jackson)

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Ivory billed woodpecker said:  “Dear me!

They’re cutting down my family tree;

Where can I live, I’d like to know,

If men will spoil the forest so?”  – Elizabeth Gordon

I have always loved birds.  I have many childhood memories of basically memorizing field guides, then sitting at the big window looking out on my backyard, watching the birdfeeder to see who came to visit.  On trips to new places I always look out for birds that don’t live at home.

If, like me, you live in the US and one of your hobbies is birdwatching, then you already know about the ivory-billed woodpecker.  You might know about it even if you’re not a birder, as it’s probably the most famous possibly extinct species of animal in the world.  The last confirmed sightings were in the 1940s.  Plenty of people, however, claim to have seen one in the decades since then.  Indeed, there are citizen scientists, who believe ivory-bills are still out there, actively trying to document their existence even today.  Nevertheless, these sightings, while interesting, do not meet the standard of proof required to declare that the ivory-bill is still around.  It is, however, equally difficult to prove the negative – that the ivory-bill, for certain, no longer exists – even if it is overwhelmingly likely that it is in fact extinct.  Thus, the extinction status limbo.

Anyway, however well you know the ivory-billed woodpecker, you almost certainly don’t know it as well as Jerome Jackson does.  In the 1980s he served on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Advisory Committee, a team put together by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to, in their mind, declare the bird extinct.  Jackson was uncertain, however, and in light of all the unconfirmed sightings, got grant money for a wide-ranging search effort – in Jackson’s own words, to “search for evidence of the continued existence of ivory-billed woodpeckers in the southeastern United States and to evaluate potential remaining habitat for the species.”  In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is partly about that search (and Jackson’s other searches in Cuba).  But more importantly it’s about the woodpecker itself, how and why it ultimately declined, and its place in American culture.

Despite this book being a quasi-catalog (where Jackson went looking and what he found) in places, it is generally interesting and enjoyable – more so in the first half, when Jackson writes about the ivory-billed woodpecker’s habits and natural habitat.  The chapters about Jackson’s search efforts are still interesting – to me, at least.  Maybe less so if you’re not interested in ornithology (but then again, if you weren’t, would you even be reading this?).  Even there, Jackson is still readable and never dry.  Throughout the book, his field experience is evident, especially in anecdotes.  Do you know what pileated woodpecker tastes like?  Jackson does.

Anyway, back to the ivory-billed woodpecker.  The ivory-bill was native to the southeastern US and Cuba, and had specific habitat requirements.  Because the ivory-bill was such a large bird, it excavated a correspondingly large nest cavity, which in turn required large-diameter, dead trees.  The beetle larvae the ivory-bill preferred to eat also lived only in recently dead trees.  And each nesting pair of ivory-bills required a very large home range (possibly over ten square miles).  This all adds up to a bird mostly restricted to large tracts of old-growth virgin forest – specifically, bottomland forest and neighboring pine forest at slightly higher elevations.  Bottomland forests flooded often, and pine forests had frequent fires – all of which ensured a steady supply of large, dead trees for both the ivory-bill and the beetles.

That all changed with the advent of logging.  As more and more forest was cleared for farmland and lumber, the ivory-bill lost its habitat and became increasingly rare.  This process accelerated after the Civil War, when lumber companies bought huge swaths of southern virgin forests from the government.  Most of the virgin forest was gone by 1900;  what was left after that was cut down in the two World Wars, when it was considered patriotic to harvest lumber for the war effort.  On top of all the logging, swamps were drained for agriculture, disrupting the bottomland’s natural flooding cycle and changing the species composition of the forests, and humans did everything possible to prevent fires (not understanding they were a natural part of the forest ecosystem).  Similar logging and land use problems caused the ivory-bill to decline in Cuba as well.

By the end of the 19th century, everyone knew that ivory-bills were rare, and they were therefore a favorite of collectors.  If ivory-bills were found, they were likely to be shot once their location got out.  Awkwardly, the shooters included scientists and early conservationists.  If you wanted a specimen for your museum, you had to get it somewhere.  Henry Nicholls’ The Way of the Panda also discussed this odd, tense juxtaposition of conservation and collection:  back in the day, there was practically a race to be the first Westerner to shoot a panda.  (Jackson also discusses documented uses of the ivory-bill by Native Americans, which was an interesting addition;  the white bills were a trade item as far north as Canada and used as decorations on pipes.)

Speaking of scientists, Jackson includes profiles of several early American naturalists and their interactions with ivory-bills.  John James Audubon is famous, of course (as is his painting of ivory-bills), along with James Tanner, who took iconic photographs of ivory-bills.  Others, however, I probably should have heard of but hadn’t.  Alexander Wilson, whose multi-volume American Ornithology inspired Audubon’s career, had an especially memorable encounter with an ivory-bill:

During the winter of 1808 to 1809, Wilson headed south, leaving Washington on Christmas morning.  In early February, while crossing what is now called Holly Shelter Swamp twelve miles north of Wilmington, North Carolina, Wilson first saw ivory-billed woodpeckers. … He found not one but three ivory-bills and shot them all, killing two and wounding the third.  He was ecstatic to have secured a living male. …

Wilson wrapped the bird in his coat, mounted his horse, and continued into Wilmington.  En route to Wilmington, the bird continually gave distress calls – so loud and shrill that they spooked his horse into running off into the swamp, nearly throwing Wilson and his captive.  As he rode into town, the ivory-bill continued crying, likened by Wilson to the piercing scream of a small child.  People came to their doors and stopped to peer at the strange man and his charge.

As he dismounted at an inn, the bird cried out again and the innkeeper and guests rushed out to see the problem.  Wilson tells of how he asked for accommodations for himself and his baby and at first received rather quizzical expressions in response.  Then he opened his coat to reveal the bird and the group had a good laugh.  Wilson left the ivory-bill in his room while he tended to his horse.  He was gone less than half an hour, but when he returned, his bed was covered with plaster and there was a hole the size of his fist nearly through the wall adjacent to the window.  He recaptured the bird, tied a string to one leg, and tied the other end of the stringe to a table leg.  He wanted to keep the bird alive and left the room in search of food for it.  On his return he discovered that the woodpecker had nearly destroyed the mahogany table.

By the late 1930s, the ivory-bill was apparently found only in the Singer Tract, an area of virgin forest in northern Louisiana.  Conservationists fought to keep logging companies out of the area (Jackson details this story), but were ultimately unsuccessful.  The Singer Tract was all but destroyed, and the last confirmed sighting of an ivory-bill happened in what was left of it, in 1944.

Today, there are possibly a few locations where there is, once again, suitable habitat for ivory-bills.  (Thus Jackson’s survey.)  But are there any ivory-bills left to live in them?  Since we can’t really know for sure, Jackson never answers that question.  He does, however, believe the ivory-bill survived beyond the last documented sighting.  In fact he believes he saw one in 1973, on the Noxubee River in Alabama.  He details other close encounters, too, where a bird making a call like an ivory-bill’s got close to him but never showed itself.

Interestingly, In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker was published in 2004, only a year before the most recent media hubbub about a possible ivory-bill sighting.  Maybe you remember it:  the “Luneau video” from Arkansas in 2005.  Famously, no less than the Cornell Lab of Ornithology believed the bird in the video was an ivory-bill.  Jackson, however, did not.  (Neither did David Allen Sibley – you probably have his awesome field guide if you’re into birds.)  So I suspect at this point – especially since nothing ever came of the video and it’s been thirteen years now – Jackson does believe the ivory-bill is extinct.

In closing, I believe the lesson of this book can be summed up in this account of one of James Tanner’s visits to the Singer Tract.

On December 27, 1941, Tanner was back in the Singer Tract.  Early that morning he went to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company Field Office and found a supervisor, Mr. Alexander, who accompanied him into the field.  Tanner, hoping to win a friend for the ivory-bill, showed him the characteristic feeding work of ivory-bills – slabs of bark removed to get at the beetle larvae.  Alexander was interested and cooperative, but nothing came of the effort.  Tanner noted that Alexander’s most pointed comment was, “They ought to learn to feed on something different.”

Many people, even today when we have a much deeper understanding of ecology, seem to share Mr. Alexander’s attitude.  Sure, animals are interesting and all, but ultimately they’re not important.  I’d love to help (or so I say), but only if it’s convenient and doesn’t interfere with my bottom line.

The consequences of this attitude were bad enough when it was the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was fairly specialized and never all that common to begin with.  Today, however, the stakes are much higher.  To take just the most salient example, pollinators – bees and butterflies – are now declining.  Even common pollinators like monarch butterflies.  Much like the ivory-billed woodpecker, monarchs are losing ground because humans are systematically eliminating something critical to their survival.  For ivory-bills, it was old, dead trees.  For monarchs, it’s milkweed, the only food source for their caterpillars.  Much like pandas and bamboo, it was once a good evolutionary bet for monarchs to focus on milkweed:  it was common until fairly recently, when humans began eliminating it with herbicides (and killing the caterpillars with neonicotinoid pesticides).

But hey, maybe the monarch caterpillars should just learn to eat something else, right?  You can undo millions of years of evolution like that, overnight, just for the convenience of humans.  It’s not like we’re endangering our own food sources by threatening pollinators, which fertilize the crops we grow.  I mean, come on, guys, clearly the butterflies are the stupid ones here!

It sounds ridiculous when you put it like this, of course.  Because, well, it is.  It’s almost certainly too late to save the ivory-billed woodpecker.  But it’s not too late to save species like the monarch.  Not only are monarchs, at the moment, in a much better state than the ivory-bill was in early 20th century, but growing more native milkweed should be, theoretically at least, an easier lift than growing new virgin forests.  In fact, you can help!  Milkweed seeds and plants are readily available online and at native plant nurseries;  I would encourage everyone to plant some in their yard.  All you need is a sunny spot (but even if you don’t, certain milkweeds will grow in the shade too!).  Just make sure, if you’re buying plants, that they haven’t been treated with neonicotinoids, or they won’t be safe for the caterpillars;  and opt for milkweeds native to your area over pretty but exotic tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica).

In the end, the children’s poem at the beginning of this post (excerpted by Jackson) may seem a little silly, but in a way it’s also profound.  Humans are extreme generalists and therefore quite adaptable.  Most other animals aren’t.  So if we want to coexist with our fellow animals, we must accommodate them, not the other way around.  Unfortunately, that’s not usually as simple as including milkweed in your garden.  But if we value the natural world, we can, and must, do better.

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