Not Quite Knocking on Heaven’s Door
The headline on the CNN website read, "Woodpecker not extinct after all." What woodpecker? The ivory-billed? No way, I thought. A click later and the answer, incredibly, was yes.
felt my left eyebrow rise sharply, the one that indicates
skepticism. That bird is long gone. Rediscovered in Arkansas?
The self-proclaimed "Most trusted name in news" has got to
a child I collected information about extinct animals with
the same enthusiasm that I collected hockey cards, and I
created a pantheon of dead birds: Labrador duck, great auk,
Carolina paraquet, and the most heart-breaking - the passenger
pigeon, a bird once so common that its numbers in North America
surpassed the human population on Earth. Lurking at the end
of my list, with an asterisk of faint hope, was the ivory-billed
woodpecker, a huge, spectacular bird with startling black,
white and red plumage, and a bone-white bill. It was also known as the Lord God Bird because of uncontrollable exhortations from those seeing
Like many things in the 18th and 19th centuries, the ivory-billed woodpecker was shot because it was there, and then later on because it looked good on a hat. However, the primary reason for its near-extermination was the clearing of the vast old-growth swamps of the south-eastern U.S. It was last documented in 1944, in Louisiana. Subsequent undocumented sightings were assumed to be of the similar, but smaller, pileated woodpecker. The ivory-billed was declared extinct in 1996.
The pileated woodpecker is found locally, most often embarrassing itself by struggling with a dangling suet basket meant for chickadees and other dainty birds. It is our largest woodpecker, beautiful enough that seeing one comes close to a Lord God moment. Its continued presence depends on the continued presence of expanses of forest that contain trees large enough for nesting, and dead snags riddled with carpenter ants, its staple food. Although seeing a pileated woodpecker in Richmond isn’t worthy of a headline, given the patchiness of the remaining forest, it would be remarkable if this species still breeds here.
Additional news coverage since the initial pronouncement of un-extinction (a new word is needed) indicates that the ivory-billed woodpecker is indeed back from the dead, and my left eyebrow is coming to terms with that.
This rates as the nature story of the century... until that Bigfoot video from Manitoba is released.
Hugh Griffith is a BC zoologist and science writer.