Dear Bird Folks:
Like many people, I have gotten caught up in the excitement of the sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I’m not really a bird watcher, but all the craziness got me interested. Since I had never even heard of this kind of woodpecker, I grabbed my parent’s bird book, “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” and was surprised to find this bird wasn’t in there. What makes this bird so special if the guy who writes a 540 bird book didn’t even bother to include it?
-Josh, 17, Augusta, ME
Not Me Josh,
David Sibley doesn’t need someone like me explaining why he didn’t include certain birds in his excellent book. Maybe after 540 pages he was just too tired. (Punch up sibleyguides.com for an awesome page on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.) More importantly, it’s great that you are interested in this amazing bird in the first place. I have a teenage daughter about your age and when I excitedly told her the big woodpecker news, she looked at me with all the enthusiastic expression of a Dutch painting. Without moving a single facial muscle she communicated her disinterest in one of her Dad’s silly bird stories. Then she told me to get out of the way so she could continue watching “American Idol.” Don’t ever have kids Josh.
This rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is no silly bird story. The sighting of this bird is astonishing or even beyond astonishing. This is the same bird whose future was obliterated by the onslaught of “civilization,” the clear cutting, the swamp draining, the ATVs, the air boats, the hunters, the trophy collectors. It is the same bird that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared to be “extinct.” It is the same bird that, for 60 years, has gone totally unseen by any of our country’s 300 million people, 600 million eyes or that weird Jeff Corwin guy from TV’s “Animal Planet.”
Staying out of sight was no easy task. We are not talking about a generic sparrow here. This is the United States’ largest woodpecker. It had, rather has, a nearly three foot long wing span, a twenty inch body, a bright red crest and massive white bill. In addition this giant woodpecker has a loud, raucous call and earns its living smashing open huge trees. How could it possibly stay hidden all these years? They don’t know. My theory is that it was able to slip past everyone by wearing dark sunglasses, but that has yet to be proven.
Historically the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s U.S. range was limited to the swamps of the southeast. As the swamps and trees began to disappear, so did the bird. As it became less common, instead of being protected, it became a favorite target for collectors. Our pal John James Audubon personally shot several and the last pair ever known to nest in Florida was also shot, ‘legally.’
Finally the bird had had enough and in the early 1940s the Ivory-billed Woodpecker retired from public life. There were no more movies, no more photos, no more public appearances. As with Ingmar Bergman, we were left with nothing but old pictures and the occasional rumored sighting, some perhaps true, others not. There were even reports of some expatriate ivory bills holding up in the mountains of Cuba, but that never amounted to much either. Probably just more Commie propaganda.
Still, after all those empty years and all the rumors that turned into dead ends, there were people who refused to give up. Then in early 2004 the sightings became more frequent and more reliable. Trained ornithologists were now the ones getting glimpses of this ghost of a bird. No longer were the reports only coming from local yokels who were pumped full of swamp gas, or from a screwball Cape Cod columnist writing an April Fool’s Day story. These reports were accurate, they were verified and they were true. The Ivory-billed woodpecker was back. Even though it had never left, it was back.
The importance of the reappearance of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker cannot be overstated. The southern communities that have been fighting the battle of overdevelopment now have a symbol to rally around. The millions of dollars that will hopefully be spent to protect this mysterious woodpecker may seem like a lot to save one bird, but in reality the protection will benefit all those beings whose lives are better off without clearcuts and strip malls.
You know Josh, I don’t want to sound all sappy here, but we could be experiencing a turning point for life as we know it. First it was the Red Sox and now the ivory bill. What miracle will be next? I’m not sure, but if I had my vote it would be an end to male baldness. It may sound petty now, but you’ll understand in a few years.