In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

Author: Jerome A. Jackson
Paperback: 322 pages
Publisher: Smithsonian Books / Collins; Updated edition (May 9, 2006)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0060891556
ISBN-13: 9780060891558



In this book, Ornithologist Jerome Jackson takes the reader through a comprehensive review of the behavior and ecology of the rarest of birds, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. This species is considered by many bird-watchers to be the "Feathered Grail". The book constantly "dances" with the question, is the Ivory-Billed extinct or not? The book provides an excellent overview of the behavior, ecology and its place in culture of this magnificent bird. It also outlines the birds structure of flight, vocalizations, feeding, diet and its breeding and nesting.

The book further discusses the many causes of decline of the Ivory-Billed species. As you would expect the "usual suspects" in species decline are outlined: the extreme loss of habitat and human hunting. A couple of other interesting aspects of the bird's decline are outlined that may not be apparent to us today:

  • Control of forest fires in the southern United States played a large impact in the decline of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. The Ivory-Billed's habitat was largely in fire-dominated areas where it utilized burned trees for feeding. Fire came to be viewed by man as "evil" and its prevention in forests became routine. This prevented the important ecological role that forest fires played. A lack of natural forest fires altered the tree species of the forest and allowed it to become too dense for the Ivory-Billed to fly through.
  • One of the last remaining refuges of the Ivory-Billed was the "Singer Tract". The Singer Tract was an area of approximately 81,000 virgin forested acres in northeastern Louisiana. The Singer Manufacturing Company purchased the land before 1916 to ensure an ongoing supply of wood for its sewing machine cabinets. It is in the Singer Tract that the last known photographs of the Ivory-Billed were taken. The book contains a stunning black and white photograph of Ornithologist James Tanner holding a juvenile Ivory-Billed in 1938. Alas, despite a valiant effort by Tanner and the American Ornithological Union to preserve the Singer Tract, it was eventually sold by the Singer company in the 1940's and logged.
  • The Ivory-Billed closely resembles the Pileated Woodpecker. The Pileated Woodpecker has a much larger white strip of the back portion of its wings, but otherwise is almost indistinguishable to the Ivory-Billed to all but a trained eye. This common misidentification may have resulted in many false sighting of the Ivory-Billed, leading many to believe that the bird may have gone extinct in some areas sooner than Ornithologists had thought.

Would Cuba prove to be the last remaining refuge of this species? Jackson outlines his expedition to Northeastern Cuba in 1988 in search of the elusive bird. While he discovered evidence of the possibility that the bird could still exist (for example, finding a shredded pine tree and possibly hearing an Ivory-Billed call), ultimately the search turned up no sightings. Jackson noted that Cuba had also logged a good portion of virgin forests in its Northeast. This probably resulted in the species dramatic decline or even extinction in Cuba.

The Epilogue of the book covers the supposed "re-discovery" of the Ivory-Billed in Arkansas in 2005. While the initial results of a supposed sighting created a great deal of fervor, the evidence presented remained inconclusive as to whether the sightings were real or again confused with a Pileated Woodpecker.

A couple of other significant points about the book:

  • Through photography (in both black & white and color) and in examples of paintings, the book provides stunning visual imagery of what a magnificent bird the Ivory-Billed was.
  • The book provides a small map that outlines the historical distribution and original range of the Ivory-Billed. Even though the map is small, it provides an effective narrative of how within a period of less than 100 years, the distribution of the Ivory-Billed dissipated from as far north as southern Illinois in the late 19th century, all the way south to Louisiana in the 1930's. Appendix 1 also provides a "Geography of Extinction", a state-by-state breakdown of the last recorded sightings of the bird.
  • The book show conclusively the importance of Natural History collections in museums. Jackson frequently references museum data about the species throughout the book. Significantly he points out that many of the Ivory-Billed specimens in museum collections are from Florida. Highlighting the importance of the state of Florida to the Ivory-Billed species.

Is the Ivory-Billed extinct? This book takes the reader down many pathways and holds out the possibility and hope that the bird still exists. As the author concludes, "the truth is out there". Grab a copy and investigate for yourself!

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