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in search of the ivory-billed woodpecker

31 January 2005

Jerome A. Jackson's In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker assembles just about everything you need to consider this great poster-bird for the margin between viability and extinction. Not unequivocally seen anywhere since the 1940s, the ivory-bill is seen or heard every few years – in Louisiana, Florida, or Cuba – by birders who inevitably fail to provide conclusive proof of its existence.

Jackson himself, a leading expert on the bird, has never seen one, though he may have heard one and may have glimpsed something that resembled one. His stories of searching for the ivory-bill remind me of nothing so much as Robert Michael Pyle's Where Bigfoot Walks (1995). The ivory-bill is no cryptid animal – there are plenty of them stuffed in museum collections, unlike Bigfoot. But when a creature hasn't been seen in about a lifetime, for many purposes it might as well be cryptid.

Nobody reports seeing passenger pigeons or Carolina parakeets, but as with Bigfoot, lots of people report seeing the ivory-billed woodpecker, a large and distinctly noble bird that simply ought to have survived human depradations in the form of direct hunting and habitat destruction. The stream of possible sightings is one of the most tantalizing elements of modern ecological history.

Much of Jackson's study is a history of lore and science about the ivory-bill. In the course of this historical survey, the bird turns from tantalizing quasi-presence to bitter tragedy. In the 1940s, several pairs of ivory-bills lived in a large wilderness area in Louisiana known as the Singer Tract. The land could have been preserved intact, but national security trumped conservation, and its virgin forest was turned into decks for PT boats.

Jackson reprints rare photos of the birds, taken by the last humans to see them. It's one thing to regret the extinction of the dodo, but at least we can blame clueless colonialists. It's another story when we read memos from and to the same government institutions that exist today, and see contemporary-looking visual and verbal records of a species about to take the long goodbye while frustrated environmentalists watch the inevitable happen right in front of them.

In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker drives home in great detail the real catastrophe for biodiversity: loss of habitat. Ivory-bills are keenly adapted to Southern forests of sweetgum and oak. Now, my backyard is sweetgum and oak, and it's in the ancient range of the ivory-bill; but the birds live and feed mainly in dead trees, and I think the city will insist that I remove any sweetgums that die on me. Not that a bird of the size and appetite of an ivory-bill could live in my backyard alone anyway; it needs hundreds of acres of dead trees to provide it with its diet of wood-boring beetles.

Conservation is possible. Perhaps if ivory-bills are found in Cuba, and detente breaks out between our governments, the birds can be reintroduced and live again in the American South. But it will have to be on terms that allow the great woodpecker to roam enormous preserves for itself and other creatures, while we simply decide to live on less of the land.

Jackson, Jerome A. In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2004.