The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Is Gone Forever. It Could Be the First of a Million Species in America.
No story has brought sadness and anger in equal measure quite like the announcement from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it was declaring more than 20 species, including 11 species of bird, to be extinct. From the New York Times:
The announcement could also offer a glimpse of the future. It comes amid a worsening global biodiversity crisis that threatens a million species with extinction, many within decades. Human activities like farming, logging, mining and damming take habitat from animals and pollute much of what’s left. People poach and overfish. Climate change adds new peril. “Each of these 23 species represents a permanent loss to our nation’s natural heritage and to global biodiversity,” said Bridget Fahey, who oversees species classification for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “And it’s a sobering reminder that extinction is a consequence of human-caused environmental change.”
The unquestioned star of the newly extinct is the ivory-billed woodpecker, which has been the holy grail of the birding community for decades. Excessive logging of its natural habitats has imperiled the bird’s survival for years. The last confirmed sighting of an ivory-bill was in 1944. But then, 17 years ago, there was a wonderful burst of hope.
But in 2004, a kayaker named Gene Sparling set off a flurry of searching when he saw a woodpecker that looked like an ivory-bill in an Arkansas swamp. Days after hearing about it, two experienced birders, Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison, flew in to join him on a search. On Day 2, paddling in their kayaks, they were getting ready to stop for lunch when suddenly a big bird flew right in front of them. “Tim and I both yelled ‘Ivory-bill!’ at the same time,” Mr. Harrison recalled. In doing so, they scared the bird away.
But the men are adamant that they got a crystal-clear look at the distinctive wing markings that distinguish an ivory-bill from its most similar relative, the pileated woodpecker. “It was unmistakable,” Mr. Gallagher said. A host of Cornell University ornithologists, several more searches, a few reported sightings and a blurry video later, a 2005 paper in the journal Science declared “Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America.”
This was an event. (I even have a T-shirt from the Cornell ornithology lab that announced, “FOUND!” in big letters.) But nothing ever came of it, and nobody saw the specimen again. And the chapter closed this weekend.
When Amy Trahan, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, completed the most recent species assessment for the woodpecker, she said, she had to make her recommendation based on the best available science. At the end of the report, she checked a line next to the words “delist based on extinction.”
“That was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done in my career,” she said. “I literally cried.”
Not for nothing, but the Cornell folks have a live camera on their feeder station at their Sapsucker Woods facility. There’s a pileated woodpecker who’s a regular visitor, and that’s as close as we’re ever going to get.