The Artdog Image of Interest, Image 1 of a planned series of 4 by John James Audubon
I’ll never forget the day my mother thought we’d seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker at our backyard bird feeder. I was a little kid: I’d never heard of one, before. And it was the biggest bird we’d ever seen at the feeder.
It wasn’t an Ivorybill, of course. This was sometime in the 1960s, and the last confirmed sighting had been in 1944.
Eventually, Mom reluctantly decided it probably had been a Pileated woodpecker, which was marked similarly, but somewhat smaller in body length (Ivorybills have been reported up to 20 inches [51 cm] in body length; Pileated top out around 19 inches [49 cm] long), without as much white on their backs, and with a darker bill.
It may only have been one afternoon’s excitement at the time, but I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the species ever since. I was very interested when possible sightings were reported in Arkansas in 2004-5, and in Florida in 2006.
But it’s hard to get sightings confirmed. If they do still exist, Ivorybills live WAY back in the most remote swamps you can imagine (habitat loss was the main reason for their decimation). The way there is literally “fur [far] an’ snakey,” as my grandparents used to say. A great many of the experts in the field remain unconvinced that there are still any Ivorybills out there somewhere. I sincerely hope that eventually it is found they do still exist. But I’m not holding my breath till it happens.
And let’s PLEASE not follow the example of Mason Spencer, who in 1932 proved there were still Ivorybills along the Tensas River in Madison Parish Louisiana by shooting one, then bringing it back to the state wildlife office in Baton Rouge! Even more awful is the story from 1924, when Cornell University ornithologist Arthur A. Allen discovered what he feared might be the last nesting pair in Florida. Once word got out, a couple of taxidermists promptly went out and shot them (presumably to sell their stuffed bodies). Yes, we’re demonstrably a gun-loving nation, but can we please think first?
Granted, it would be hard to haul the photographic equipment of the 1920s and 30s back up into the woody swamps to prove they still existed, but Cornell’s intrepid Dr. Allen, accompanied by several colleagues, managed it in 1935, when he photographed and recorded the sounds made by a nesting pair in and area of old-growth forest known as the Singer Tract in Louisiana (Mason Spencer’s neck of the woods, actually).
For a trip back in time to 83-years-ago-this-Monday (the recording was made April 9, 1935), here’s the recording Dr. Allen made of the Ivorybill pair shown above and below.
I I think it’s worth a look at the comments section of the Macaulay Library’s webpage devoted to the recording, too, but I’m kind of a geek.
The Singer Sewing Machine Co. later sold the 81,000-acre Singer tract to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. Despite efforts to secure the irreplaceable virgin forest for a nature preserve, Chicago Mill and Lumber logged whole thing. It’s where the last known-for-sure Ivorybill, a female, was seen in 1944 by Don Eckelberry, an artist working for The Audubon Society.
If you’ve ever questioned why some folks think public land in nature preserves shouldn’t be opened for exploitation by private logging or mining concerns, just think about the Singer Tract, and the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, who apparently thought their ephemeral profits were more important than some stupid bird.
If you’ve ever wondered why some people think it’s important to make it illegal to kill specimens of endangered species, just remember Mason Spencer and the Florida taxidermists. We may (probably) have lost the marvelous Ivory-bills, but there are many other endangered and critically endangered species now. Which ones will disappear on our watch? How many will we save?
IMAGES: Many thanks to Audubon Galleries for the photo of the Audubon Ivorybills; to Wikipedia for the field marks comparison of Pileated with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and the four 1935 photos of the nesting pair by Arthur A. Allen; and to the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library website for the recording of nesting Ivorybills calling and rapping.