The Story of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker - "Lord, God! What a bird!"

Posted on March 30, 2012 by Christiana Briddell | 2 Comments


The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is, or was one of the world's largest woodpeckers with an impressive 20-inch length and 30-inch wingspan. It got the nickname the "Lord God Bird" apparently because the people who did see this elusive bird couldn't help but exclaim, "Lord, God! What a bird!" The species once ranged the swampy lowland forests of the southern United States from East Texas to the pine forests of South Carolina, and from Florida up the water ways to Kentucky. As a side note, the Ivory-billed has the distinction of being the model for Disney's Woody Woodpecker.

Because of vast habitat destruction and hunting during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Ivory-billed was feared extinct by the 1920s. But in the 1930s, in one last remaining tract of virgin swamp forest in Northeastern Louisiana, the bird was sighted again. Both film and photographs were taken of nesting Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Cornell University Ornithologist, James T. Tanner managed to crawl up to a nest hole and band a young bird, which then proceeded to jump out of the nest and fall to the ground because it couldn't yet fly. Before they got the bird back in the nest, they snapped close up pictures of this chick (above), where you can see the striking white wing markings and ivory-colored beak (really bone, not ivory) that distinguish it from the smaller and much more common Pileated Woodpecker. Unfortunately, that tract of forest was logged in the 1940s—despite pleas from four Southern governors and the National Audubon Society to spare it—and the last uncontested sighting was a lone female in 1944.

Does the bird still exist?

Since then, many people have reported sightings of the bird across its range, some more trustworthy than others. Until recently, the closest was a wing feather found by a man in Florida and identified as belonging to an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Then in 2005, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology announced that searchers had seen an Ivory-billed in the Big Woods in Arkansas and produced a 4.5 second video of the bird flying. This video was extensively analyzed and the team felt that because of the wing-beat rate, the colorings, the flight pattern and size, it was definitely not the Pileated Woodpecker. Other researchers have reported sightings along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida's Panhandle. Although both claims were from trained ornithologists, neither is universally accepted. There has as yet been no incontrovertible evidence.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker looking from BurlAt Overboard Art, when the news of the possible rediscovery of the bird was spreading like wildfire, Don decided it was time to include the Ivory-billed in the collection. In fact, Don spoke to Bobby Harrison, Associate Professor at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama who followed up on the original report of the Arkansas sighting and saw the bird himself. Don based his sculpture (left), from a picture Prof. Harrison sent him of an actual specimen that dated to the 1800s. We hope that one day the bird will be recovered from the edge and until then, here's a tribute to America's largest woodpecker!

Posted in Endangered Birds, Ivory-billed Woodpecker


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