The ‘Lord God bird’ is gone: An elegy for the ivory-billed woodpecker

Last seen in 1944, the bird has stoked nearly eight decades of hopeful searches. Now, it’s officially, depressingly “extinct.”

By Mel White
Published 4 Oct 2021, 13:23 BST
NationalGeographic_1039006
Collected by scientists between 1869 and 1914, the world’s largest archive, more than 60 specimens, resides at Harvard University. The birds were doomed in large part by unchecked logging.
Photograph by JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

The ivory-billed woodpecker, a majestic black-and-white bird that once nested in mature forests in the American Southeast and Cuba, was last indisputably seen in the United States in Louisiana in 1944. As decades passed with no plausible records, the bird has been assumed by most ornithologists to be extinct. And on Wednesday the inevitable happened: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intention to remove 22 animals, including the ivorybill, and one plant from the Endangered Species Act list because the agency considers them extinct.

All the species in this depressing lineup represent losses to biodiversity, of course, from a small fish once found in only a single creek in Ohio to brilliant songbirds whose voices will never again be heard in Hawaiian rainforests. The headliner, though—the focus of one of the most heated environmental controversies of recent times—is undoubtedly the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Despite the lack of proven sightings after 1944, die-hard birdwatchers never gave up hope for the “Lord God bird’s” survival, doggedly searching southern bottomlands from Texas to Florida. Sightings were reported regularly, but none could be confirmed. (The search was complicated by the presence of the common, look-alike pileated woodpecker, nearly as large as an ivorybill and easily confused with it.)

Some 20 biologists and a hundred volunteers searched eastern Arkansas for the bird from November 2005 to April 2006.
Photograph by Photography by JOEL SARTORE

Then, a series of seven reported sightings in a national wildlife refuge in eastern Arkansas in 2004 and 2005, as well as a highly pixelated four-second video, seemed credible enough to draw serious interest from biologists. So credible, in fact, that a team of researchers from the prestigious Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology accepted as scientific fact the improbable idea that the ivory-billed woodpecker had indeed risen from the dead.

The official announcement came April 28, 2005, in a well-publicised ceremony that included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cornell, the Nature Conservancy, and sundry politicians and public officials eager to be part of this environmental feel-good story. The ivorybill’s surprising, not to say shocking, rediscovery was quickly labelled “the conservation story of the century.” The publicity was so pervasive that soon even people with no interest in birds knew about the ivorybill comeback.

As they heard the news, many people broke down in tears, taking this near-miracle as offering hope that humans had not irredeemably ravaged the planet—that nature could heal itself, after all.

Nonetheless, from the very start of this chapter of the ivorybill saga, there was no shortage of skeptics. After all, historical records indicate that these birds needed vast areas of virgin forest with abundant large trees (large dead trees, especially), to survive. Yet the initial Arkansas sightings occurred in a relatively narrow line of woodland along a small bayou, surrounded by agricultural land, three miles from a McDonald’s, petrol stations, motels, and the other trappings of an interstate highway junction.

And this: Where had ivorybills been for 60 years? Why had there been not a single indisputable sighting, or photo, or video, of this large, conspicuous, noisy bird since 1944? No one among the resurrection hopeful ever came up with a believable answer.

These are among the many reasons why, when a National Geographic editor emailed me in 2005 to ask whether I was overcome with rapture that a long-lost, near-mythic species had been found just 65 miles from my house, my reply was, “Hey. There is no ivory-billed woodpecker here. This is all a giant mistake.” (I may have used a stronger word than “mistake.”) Coming at the height of ivorybill delirium, when it seemed the whole word had joined the celebration, my unequivocal statement took her aback—and soon led to my writing a story about the ivory-billed woodpecker for National Geographic magazine.

You see, I had been a small part of the ivorybill rediscovery, or non-rediscovery, almost from the beginning. As a longtime birder in Arkansas, I was invited to a secret 2004 meeting in Little Rock where representatives from Cornell, the Nature Conservancy, and other groups made plans for searching for ivorybills, and for dealing with the inevitable publicity and influx of fanatical birdwatchers when news of the sightings was released.

Ivorybills nested in 1935 in Louisiana’s Singer Tract.
Photograph by ARTHUR A. ALLEN, COURTESY CORNELL LABORATORY OF ORNITHOLOGY
Illustrator Mark Catesby’s hand-colored etching of an ivory-billed woodpecker first appeared in his book “The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama” in the 18th century.
Photograph by Photography by David Tipling Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo

I was part of the search team that scoured the White River National Wildlife Refuge and associated bottomlands for ivorybills. I hung out with Cornell researchers in the small town of Brinkley, Arkansas, where various stories were concocted to explain the presence of so many Yankee-accented outsiders. (“Looking for a rare owl,” was one.) Once I got the magazine assignment, I interviewed dozens of scientists, government officials, volunteer searchers, and bird-identification experts on both sides of the issue. From the start I had been a skeptic; after hearing the evidence, I became an ivorybill atheist.

I watched as the bird world divided into believers and skeptics, and saw the antagonism escalate. Kenn Kaufman, one of the most respected birders in the country, looked at the infamous four-second video that had been accepted as showing an ivorybill and decided it looked like a pileated woodpecker flying away at an upward angle. Kaufman, a supremely nice fellow, quickly learned what it meant to be a skeptic. “I had people yelling at me, just furious, saying I was like a Communist or something for even daring to question this joyful event,” he told me at the time.

David Sibley, another bird-identification guru and, like Kaufman, an author of bird field guides, was initially intrigued but soon “took a fresh look at the evidence and realised how little evidence there was.” Like several other nonbelievers, he eventually published his doubts about the ivorybill discovery, but told me “it was difficult to figure out the best way to present the information, announcing that the biggest feel-good bird story of anybody’s lifetime might not be true. There isn’t any nice way to do that.”

Although Sibley said he didn’t lose any friends over the believer/skeptic divide, plenty of people did. Word wars in scientific journals and nature magazines became bitter. The ethics and judgment of highly respected scholars were questioned in competing articles with the tone of newsstand scandal sheets. As is so often the case, once people had taken a stand, few had the humility to reconsider their positions.

National Geographic assigned ace nature photographer and National Geographic Explorer Joel Sartore to shoot the ivorybill story. Appropriately, I suppose, he was an ivorybill believer, and worked tirelessly in the Arkansas swamps for weeks to get The Shot, that perfect photo that would once and for all prove that ivorybills still flew among the thousand-year-old bald-cypresses, giving their kent call and feasting on grubs the size of cigars. I admired his dedication but didn’t share his faith. Editors pushed to have the ivorybill article published as soon as possible, while the story was still fresh; Sartore asked to have it put off a year so he could work through the next nesting season. But editors prevailed, and the story ran with a splendid selection of photographs that evoked the spirit of the search and the habitat where it took place—but as for the bird: only an impressive, although somewhat gruesome, lineup of more than 60 tagged specimens from the Harvard University archive.

This specimen of an ivory-billed woodpecker was collected around 1900 and is part of the University of Nebraska State’s collection.
Photograph by Photography by JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

Among the biggest skeptics were some of the staff at the White River National Wildlife Refuge, which administers the land where much of the searching took place. Highly experienced outdoorspeople who had collectively spent decades exploring the bottomlands, they were being told by outside experts that during all those years they had somehow completely missed finding a very large, loud, flashy bird living in their woods. I didn’t blame them for being peeved. But they were obligated to follow the party line of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which had officially endorsed the rediscovery and shared the celebratory stage for the formal announcement. “Cornell fired the shot, and now we’re all riding the bullet,” one refuge staffer said to me.

But here we are, 16 years later, and nobody has seen an ivory-billed woodpecker since those initial reports. And the Fish and Wildlife Service, our national arbiter of such things, has officially declared that the ivorybill is extinct—dead as the dodo or T. rex. In fact, their press release states that the last confirmed sighting was in 1944, which means that they have now disowned the 2004-05 sightings from eastern Arkansas, which also means that lots of people are going to claim that the whole foofaraw was much ado about nothing.

It wasn’t, though. If we’re farsighted enough, the ivorybill’s demise could teach us something. This week’s press release also talks about the importance of conserving species “before declines become irreversible.” That means protecting entire ecosystems, not just focusing on a single species, whether a grizzly bear or a tiny snail. Protecting one stream to save one species of fish is inefficient and susceptible to small-scale environmental disruption. Protecting the larger ecosystem that encompasses that stream could save the fish as well as the habitats of many other species.

Each of the 23 species declared extinct this week had its own requirements for existence, and somewhere along the way the chain of survival failed. The ivory-billed woodpecker was probably doomed in the early 20th century, when the old-growth forests of the South were being cut down as fast as timber companies could run their mills. Even had there been an Endangered Species Act in the 1920s, it would have been too late for a bird that needed between six and 17 square miles of mature woodland per nesting pair. There just wasn’t enough forest left for the ivorybill to endure.

It’s probably unrealistic to think that southern wilderness expansive enough to support sustainable populations of ivorybills could have been protected as the U.S. grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, back when nature was seen as something to be subdued. But thanks to modern environmental awareness and conservation, we have versions of such wildlands today, from Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin to Florida’s Big Cypress Swamp. They’re home to black bears and panthers and bald eagles and alligators and countless other species—but with the ivorybill gone, there’s a hole in the forest that will never be filled.

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