For nearly fifty years, one of North America’s most magnificent bird species was thought to be extinct. But just a week before the printing of this paper, scientists confirmed that at least one ivory-billed woodpecker – and they suspect at least a few more – is alive and well in Arkansas.
Tim Gallagher from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bobby Harrison from Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, were the first scientists to confirm a sighting of the bird in 50 years. Gallagher described their reaction to finding the bird as follows:
“As he finished his notes, Harrison sat down on a log, put his face in his hands, and began to sob. ‘I saw an ivory-billed,’ he said. I stood quietly a few feet away, too choked with emotion to speak,” Gallagher recalled.
The news evoked strong emotions, not just in scientists and bird enthusiasts, but in people across the country and around the world. In part, those strong emotions were sparked because the bird truly is magnificent and its disappearance was a travesty in American history. Known colloquially as the “Lord God Bird” to locals living near the bottomland forests of the Mississippi Delta, the bird was thought to have been the victim of the relentless destruction of old-growth hardwood forests that started over a century ago – a forest type that is critical for the bird’s survival. The extent of those forests has shrunk by more than 80% since before European settlement, and the magnificent old growth forests with 1000+ year old cypress and fig trees measuring more than 10 feet in diameter are completely gone. What’s left is highly fragmented, except for a few protected areas.
But above all else, the strong emotional reaction of myriad people to the news of the survival of the ivory-billed woodpecker was because it inspired hope – hope in the wonder and resiliency of nature, hope in the ability of people to undo some of the worst insults we have caused to the natural world, and hope that even some of our most imperiled and devastated forests and natural communities might be restored someday, even if it will take thousands of years. For those of us who live in and love the long-abused forests of the South, the discovery in Arkansas was especially poignant.
As inspiring as the finding of the ivory-billed woodpecker may be, however, there are lessons to be learned. For one, we cannot just rely on the resiliency of nature to correct our mistakes and poor decisions; it is not going to bring back the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, or numerous other bird species that went extinct nearly a century ago. James Gorman, in a recent article in the New York Times, put it well in describing why the ivory-billed woodpecker survived while those other species did not:
“It wasn’t a miracle. It wasn’t luck. And it wasn’t simply the resilience of nature, although that helped. The reason for the astonishing re-emergence of a mysterious bird is as mundane as can be. It is habitat preservation, achieved by hard, tedious work, like lobbying, legislating and fund-raising.”
In the end, it was people that made the difference, even if it was people that created the problem in the first place. Scientists, conservationists, government officials and concerned local citizens protected the environment that allowed the bird to survive. It was also more than thirty years of environmental laws, conservation funds and other government programs that were absolutely critical in protecting the last remaining lowland forests in the Mississippi Delta.
Thus it’s ironic that the bird was discovered at the very time that the White House and leaders in Congress are working to wreduce or eliminate the very federal programs that have been, and will continue to be, instrumental in preserving the species: conservation funds, tax write-offs for conservation easements, and protections for roadless areas – not to mention the Endangered Species Act itself. The return of the ivory-billed woodpecker is a sign of hope, but it is also a reminder of the diminished and precarious condition of our southern forests, a reminder that we must strengthen, not weaken, the very environmental laws and programs that saved the ivory-billed woodpecker from the brink of extinction. We were granted a second chance to protect this majestic sentinel of our southern forests, but we will not been given a third.