It’s been a study in foregone conclusions — even my 1962 edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds listed the ivory-billed woodpecker as “close to extinction” — but hope dies hard. Now it is official.
The ivory-billed woodpecker, a ghostly bird whose long-rumored survival in the bottomland swamps of the South has haunted seekers for generations, will be officially declared extinct by U.S. officials after years of futile efforts to save it. It earned its nickname because it was so big and so beautiful that those blessed to spot it blurted out the Lord’s name.
Even the scientist who wrote the obit cried.
“This is not an easy thing,” said Amy Trahan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who reviewed the evidence and wrote the report concluding that the ivory bill “no longer exists.”
“Nobody wants to be a part of that,” she added, choking up in a Zoom interview. “Just having to write those words was quite difficult. It took me a while.”
With a range that once spanned from the coastal plains of North Carolina to the bayous of East Texas, the ivory-billed woodpecker suffered its most precipitous drop in numbers during the 1800s. Marksmen gunned them down for private collectors and hat makers, while loggers felled the old-growth stands where the birds roosted and foraged for grub.
“The fact that this bird is so critically endangered has been true since the 1890s, and it’s fundamentally a consequence of the fact that we cut down every last trace of the virgin forest of the Southeastern U.S.,” said John W. Fitzpatrick, director emeritus of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “We took all that away.”
But occasional sightings sustained hope for recovery. Teddy Roosevelt spotted three in 1907 during a bear hunt in Louisiana’s swamplands. In 1924, famed Cornell University ornithologist Arthur “Doc” Allen took the world’s first photograph of the ivory bill in Florida — just days before two collectors shot the mating pair. A decade later, after the bird was believed to be extinct, Allen’s team returned to make the world’s only undisputed recording of its hornlike calls.
As the article notes, the ivory-billed isn’t the only species to be listed as extinct. More than twenty other birds, reptiles, and mollusks have been wiped out, and the list will only grow as climate change and the loss of natural habitats occurs. It is the way nature works, but with a great number of species that have gone extinct, humanity has played an altogether outsized role in it.