Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (copy)

It was known by many different names: Kent, White-Back, Pate, Poule de bois, Van Dyke, etc.. It depended on which part of the South one dwelt. In the late 1800s one name began to take prominence. From the Eastern seaboard to the Mississippi Gulf it became known as the Lord God Bird after one dumbstruck observer announced, “Lord God, what a bird!”

Notice, I am using the past tense, for this bird is now extinct. The last official sighting of an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker or Campephilus principalis was 1944. Local ornithologists were checking on a female daily at John’s Bayou in the Singer Tract of Louisiana when a windstorm blew down her ash tree home, and she was never seen again.

There were two main factors which led to the demise of this magnificent species. One factor was attributed to the bird itself. If only its plumage and size were not so incredible. Ladies wanted to decorate their hair and hats with the long black and white feathers as was the style. The other factor was our growing need in America for wood. The rebuilding of Chicago after the 1871 fire left only 10 years of lumber in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The Yankees looked southward for the housing boom.

To some extent, the researchers also played a role in the bird’s extinction. In the early years of birding, scientist had to kill the birds in order to study them. They did not have the luxury of photography, moving pictures, or recorded sound. Hunters were paid four or five dollars for a specimen by a middleman who then charged 10 to 12 dollars to scientists or curators. The white-bill brought in many greenbacks which led to hundreds slaughtered in a week’s time. John James Audubon once took delivery of an adult male and female, plus juvenile along with the tree trunk and nest in which they lived.

I gleaned all this knowledge and more from Phillip Hoose’s The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. Written for high school students, the book is filled with over 70 photographs including one taken of Audubon’s painting of the woodpecker family mentioned earlier.

According to this book, published in 2004, the bird is extinct, but some birdwatchers feel differently. There are three books written on an adult level dealing with this subject: Ivorybill Hunters by Geoffrey E. Hill, Stalking the Ghost Bird by Michael K. Steinberg, and The Grail Bird by Tim Gallagher.

How nice it would be to rediscover this bird in the wilds!