Displaying items by tag: ghost bird

Tuesday, 26 January 2021 16:55

Still no glimpses of the ghost bird

bales ivorybill hbThe red-cockaded woodpecker is vanishingly rare, but its true status in the wild is not known.   Courtesy Stephen Lyn Bales

'Lord God Bird' of lore, a sad reminder of what we have lost

We stood agape. Before us, on a white countertop as big as a ping pong table, lay 17 dead ivory-billed woodpeckers. They were museum specimens neatly arranged in two groups: nine males and eight females, all lined up like ears of corn in separate wooden trays. Each had a paper label attached to a leg with handwritten notation of when and where it had been collected; most seemed to date from the late 1800s. Being in the presence of so many rendered us reverently speechless.

The Knoxville History Project’s Paul James and I were in the cellar of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History at the time. Surrounding us were row after row of 10-foot, pale-green metal cabinets, lockers with wooden drawers filled with museum specimens. In addition to the 17 Campephilus principalis organized in the wooden trays before us, there was also one lone male mounted on a log for display purposes. All eighteen are part of the more than 640,000 avian specimens housed at the museum, which is in the nation’s capital cattycornered to the Washington Monument.

“We receive anywhere between one and 4,000 new specimens a year,” remarked the museum’s curator of birds at the time James Dean. “Many are donated by families that discover ‘grandfather’s collection’ stored in the attic.”   

Call it fortuitous. When Paul arranged the meeting, the ivory-billed woodpecker was this country’s most ethereal bird; although not officially pronounced extinct it had last been documented in the swamps of Louisiana over 60 years ago. Contemporary field guides no longer include the ivorybill, America’s largest woodpecker, for they have been written off as being eliminated long ago. In the 1800s, when folks caught a fleeting glimpse of an ivory-bill they’d gasp, saying, “Lord God, what a bird,” or simply, “Lord God Bird!” So, how could this magnificent bird, black-and-white, crow-sized bird with a loud “kient, kient-kient, kient” vocalization go undetected in our modern world?

Published in Air