We’re All In This Together

It was a poignant moment for me—to hold the remnant of such a majestic creature in my own hand! It was larger than expected, big as a crow, and its feathers were still bright despite years in a darkened specimen drawer. The fiery red crest, the brilliant stripes running down the sides of the neck, converging to form a broad white shield on the black back—these were markings quite different from those of its Pileated cousin. Most striking was the impressive long white beak giving the bird its name: Ivory-billed Woodpecker. A tag on its leg bore the date 1911, the year it had met its fate in a Florida swamp. Inscribed also was the name of the naturalist who had shot it and later bequeathed it to the museum’s bird collection. Officials there had allowed me to examine some of their prized examples of “Campephilus principalis.” The name, roughly speaking, means “lover of grubs, chief of its tribe.” Now represented by only a few such “skins” tucked away in cabinets, it had once been a free-ranging inhabitant of southern forests.

My interest in the Ivory-bill dates from 1935 when, as a boy, I learned that a team of Cornell ornithologists was searching the swamps of the southeastern US for the very few remaining. Notice had been given of its dwindling population, and the aim was to record its voice and also to study its habits in hopes of finding some way to restore its numbers. None was seen until the group reached an area near the Tensas River in Louisiana . Several pairs were located there in a forest of towering oak and sweet gums, set aside by the Singer Company as a source of wood for its sewing machine cabinets. Cumbersome equipment was lugged by mule cart into its swamps, and the bird’s calls and its loud drumming sounds were recorded for posterity.

The study, extending over three years, revealed some discouraging information. The bird’s chief food consisted of larvae of a particular kind of wood-boring beetle, retrieved by tearing off strips of bark from dead trees and probing for grubs tunneling underneath. Fallen trees were not often visited, and dead ones remaining upright were few and far between. James Tanner, Cornell’s major investigator, estimated that each nesting pair would require a minimum of 2.5 to 3 square miles of forest to meet its needs. With this specialized source of food, together with the pace of lumbering in these bottomland forests, the bird seemed doomed. As World War II came along, the rate of cutting accelerated and by mid-century, the primeval forests of the South had all been harvested—the bird’s usual habitat was gone. The last recorded Ivory-bill, a lone female, was seen in the remains of the Singer tract in l944.

Now and again news would come of a possible sighting, but none was confirmed. What seemed like a highly reliable report in 2002 generated an intensive search through the Pearl River region of Louisiana . This included the use of special electronic acoustic devices posted throughout the swamp, but thousands of hours of such recordings yielded no authentic calls or tapping noises. A subspecies of the Ivory-bill has been known to exist in the forests of Cuba , most recently in the mountainous eastern end of the island, but the last of these was seen in 1987, and further search there has yielded no success. Hope for the survival of this bird lives on in some quarters, but it appears increasingly certain that the species has been elbowed out of existence by destruction of its habitat.

A well-illustrated account of the whole, sad story was written recently by Phillip Hoose. The title of his book, “The Race to Save the Lord God Bird,” was based on the sort of exclamation bursting from people at their first sight of this glorious creature. In an effort to attract young readers to the idea of conservation, he has aimed at an audience of eighth and ninth graders, but I assure you the book provides fascinating reading for adults as well.

His story has its heroes and its villains; among the latter are the bird-skin collectors and their hired gunners who, perhaps unwittingly, continued to track down these creatures in the face of severely declining numbers. Most of all, he blames the owners of lumber companies who were intent on harvesting all the growth in the climax forests of southern swamps. Despite appeals to save some of the areas as preserves for the Ivory-bill, the rich market for the valuable wood trumped all calls for caution. Today, in place of those great trees on the Singer tract, there are vast fields of soybeans. However, loss of the water-holding capacity of those former wetlands has now led to increased problems of flood control in the region. Continued encroachment for agricultural or industrial use on such lands, there and elsewhere in the world, is taking its toll.

Ironically, while the media were focused on “end-of-life” issues, the remarkable March 30 th report of the “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment” missed the headlines. It summarizes the results of a joint effort of 1,360 specialists in 95 nations, warning that “human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.” In other words, besides a grim outlook for huge numbers of plants, animals, fish and other organisms, survival of the human species itself is increasingly under threat. Those of us who continue to think of the “environment” as something surrounding us but not including us—something “out there” consisting only of mountains, forests, wetlands, lakes and the like—may be missing the point. We are really messing up those ecosystems we’re actually a part of. That’s sobering to think about as we greet the awakening spring this month!

In the face of all this, we might consider some words from the naturalist and author, Joseph Wood Krutch. In his essay on the month of April in his book “The Twelve Seasons,” he urges us to set aside a special day each year to mark the arrival of spring, “to celebrate our ancient loyalties and to remember our ancient origins.” To determine its date, he would depend not on the calendar, but on calls from the little frogs in the swamp. He would name it the “Day of the Peepers,” as they tune up to tell us once again, “Spring is come!” Each year as we relish this great resurrection, he would add this : “’Don’t forget,’ I’d whisper to the peepers, ‘we’re all in this together!’”

M.G. Criscitiello

Rediscovering the Ivory Billed Woodpecker