Ivory Bill Woodpecker of the Mind Redux
After reading the four books on the long-thought-extinct bird, I admit to being smitten by the ivory-billed woodpecker, once our country’s largest pecker and known by many who saw it as the Lord God Bird.
The sad story of the ivory bill’s slide into extinction is a distasteful tale that dates to humans’ first contact. The birds’ colorful, characteristic plumage and eggs were plundered by Native Americans and early explorers for trinkets and food. But it was pure human greed (this time for wood) and industrial-age weapons of mass destruction that clear-cut the swamps of the Southeastern United States. The ivory bill was lost along with one of the largest forests on the planet. If you have an old Singer sewing machine from the early 1920s in the attic, the wood in it was part of that senseless destruction. To add insult to injury, ornithologists killed the last ivory bill colonies for their own collections, crying crocodile tears at its demise while mounting their iconic specimens for a waiting laboratory drawer.
Though sightings have been sporadically reported since the 1940s, the ornithologist community stopped taking any seriously. Then in 2004, two birders, one an editor at the prestigious Cornell School of Ornithology doing a book on ivory bills, following a tip, spotted what they determined was an ivory bill in Arkansas. A short film taken from a boat in the same area a couple of months later led Cornell to recognize the finds as authentic. After a period of euphoria, many in the birding community began questioning the official Cornell video findings. Today, after three years of fruitless, expensive searches, there is serious skepticism that the Arkansas sightings are really proof of the ivory bills’ escape from the noose of extinction.
Now, Geoff Hill, an ornithologist at Auburn University, enters the fray with a new book, Ivorybill Hunters: The Search for Proof in a Flooded Wilderness. Hill and several of his graduate students spent several months in a western-Florida swampland and came back with photos of woodpecker bark scaling and recordings of bird calls and woodpecking in the remote swamps of the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle near the Georgia border. Some team members recorded multiple sightings of what they identified as ivory bills. They came back, however, with no photos, just two blurry videos that, even Hill admits, are inconclusive.
When I first read of Hill’s low-budget study on the website, I didn’t put much faith in it, especially after reading some of the web posts by those involved. I’m not sure I believe him after reading the book, but that said, he makes a good argument for further research into the area where they made their discoveries.
Hill, an academic ornithologist and lifetime birder, draws a careful distinction between the two to criticize the science behind Cornell’s analysis of the Arkansas sighting and video and build the case for his own study.
It’s unfortunate that they didn’t get a clear shot; in fact, no researcher ever reported observing a perched bird. The photos of the wood shavings are most intriguing, showing patterns of ivory-bill beakwork. I am less enthusiastic about the recordings they made of the bird’s distinctive kent call or the double-knock rapping sound on the web, but that could be because there aren’t enough authentic ivory-bill recordings to match them up against. Hill concedes that his study won’t pass scientific scrutiny.
I find no reason to disbelieve Hill’s sincerity or his confidence in his evidence. If anything, he has too much faith in his own team. But he makes a good case that many western-Florida river systems haven’t been explored, few humans enter those waters and most folks wouldn’t recognize an ivory bill if they saw it – pileated woodpeckers are plentiful and often mistaken for ivory bills. Jerome Jackson, the noted ivory-bill author and researcher who is among those who question the Arkansas findings, wrote in his book that he believed the Florida swamps might still harbor isolated groups of ivory bills.
That is perhaps encouraging. I once felt it was important to find out if these birds are truly extinct. But remembering our lethal history, I think that we should just let them be, in their isolated swamps, far from our deadly grasp.