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The Lord God Bird, and the Threat to Conservation

Bill Meredith

"Lord God, what a bird!" …
attributed to various individuals seeing
the Ivory-billed Woodpecker for the first time.

A minor anniversary almost slipped past without notice this April. It might have been missed completely if I had not been reminded by news reports of the sighting of an Ivory-billed woodpecker somewhere in Arkansas. The discovery caused a legitimate stir; the last confirmed sighting of this bird was in Louisiana, in 1944, and most modern bird books list it as "probably extinct." Although there were a few reports each decade that someone had heard it in remote southern swamp forests, the most authoritative recent book, Sibley’s Guide, published in 2000, doesn’t even mention it.

The anniversary in question was the 52nd year since I first saw a pileated woodpecker. Though it is 3 inches smaller than the Ivory-bill, the pileated is still a spectacular sight, more than twice as big as any other native woodpecker. It was early on an April morning; I had just gone into the kitchen to get breakfast, glanced out the window, and there it was… perched near the ground on an old, rotting stump, scattering chips in all directions as it searched for ants. My mind’s eye can still see its black body trimmed in white and the flaming red crest. With its staring, yellow eye and 3-inch beak, it looked as big as a pterodactyl, and nearly as menacing.

I knew what it was because at that time I was enrolled in Prof. Paul Davisson’s course in Ornithology. The plan of the course was simple: we went out and looked for birds from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday that semester. Only if it was storming did we have lectures; ordinary rain didn’t keep us in. We learned color patterns, silhouettes, flight patterns, songs and alarm calls. The textbook was Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. Mr. Davisson told us Peterson was something akin to God, but when I met him years later and asked him to autograph the book, he was brusque, bored with amateurs, and not at all god-like. But it was a good book. I spent hours leafing through it, memorizing the field marks used for quick identification and poring over descriptions of songs.

I was familiar with flickers and downies, and now I had seen the pileated woodpecker, but they all paled in comparison to the picture of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It looked as if it might have come from the imagination of Salvador Dali in one of his more hallucinatory moments. Mr. Davisson told us it hadn’t been seen for 10 years, but I was naVve enough to watch for it whenever I was in the woods, not realizing that even before it reached the edge of extinction it had never lived in West Virginia. The stuffed specimen we saw when the class visited the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh was a bit of a letdown… dusty, motheaten, and not as big as I expected… but the romance of it persisted. Even professional ornithologists called it the "Lord God Bird," and dreaming about finding one in the woods was like vicariously living the life of Indiana Jones.

Finding an animal that had not been seen for 60 years is an exciting and important achievement, and the birding community is rightly elated about it. There is, of course, the possibility that the American Ivory-bill really is extinct; a small population of a related species exists in Cuba, and the bird seen in Arkansas might be from that group, blown across the Caribbean by one of the recent hurricanes. (Stranger things have happened; in the 1950’s, a Yellow-billed Tropicbird, native to Bermuda, was found in a parking lot in Gettysburg after a hurricane.) Eventually, researchers will find a feather, an eggshell or a dead specimen and test its DNA to confirm whether it is really the American species. I fervently hope so; but therein lies a problem.

Discovering an animal or plant that was believed to be extinct is not really unusual. Probably the most famous case is the Coelacanth, a fish that was known only from 200-million year old fossils until one was caught alive near Madagascar in the 1930’s. The Tasmanian wolf was last seen alive in Australia in 1936, but a young one was reported killed by a car in 1961, and unconfirmed sightings and tracks continue to occur. There are many other examples; even as I write, yesterday’s Baltimore Sun reported that a 6-foot sturgeon was caught in Chesapeake Bay, the first seen there in decades. While discoveries like this encourage ecologists and delight the general public, they provide ammunition for anti-environmentalists who claim that the whole idea of endangered species is a myth.

Anti-environmentalists of this stripe come in two main types: some claim endangered species are really plentiful if we just go out and look for them hard enough, and others claim extinction doesn’t really matter. It would be one thing if these individuals were just isolated kooks, but they are more numerous than most people realize, and many hold important positions in making national policy. Among the most notorious was James Watt, Secretary of the Interior in the early 1980’s, but there are still many at surprisingly high levels in government, business and the lobbying community. Some are simply ignorant about the fundamentals of ecology; some are aware but cynical or misguided enough to consider ecology irrelevant as a factor in determining economic policy. Among the most problematic are those who base their opposition on the religious belief that the world will soon end anyway, so there is no point in worrying about endangered species.

Extinction, once it happens, is permanent and irreversible. When we see sturgeons coming back in the Bay and in the Hudson River, we are encouraged to believe our efforts to clean up such polluted areas can succeed; but at the same time we are faced with efforts by politicians to cut funding for cleanup and research. The Ivory-billed woodpecker was found in a forest that is approaching maturity after being lumbered years ago; it captured the imagination of people all over the country who had never even heard of such a bird, but it will be interesting to see how long their enthusiasm lasts when the lumbering industry tries to re-enter the area.

We have a huge supply of evidence to prove that endangered species can only survive if their habitat is preserved; but to preserve habitat we must persuade the government, the housing industry, the energy lobby and many other special interest groups that the thing in the balance is our own survival, and not just the right to hug another spotted owl. Ecologists on the whole are good at arguing points that are logical and based on facts, but most of us are ill prepared to debate people who ignore facts or bend the evidence to fit preconceived, dogmatic ideas. This is a battle we are losing at the present time.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith