Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), Study for Havell pl. 66, c. 1825–26
Watercolor, pastel, black ink, graphite, gouache, and white lead pigment with selective glazing and outlining with a stylus on paper, laid on card, 38 1/4 x 25 1/16 in. (97.2 x 63.7 cm)
Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.66
Audubon’s watercolor model was recently conserved and treated to remove the disfiguring brown stain at the lower right. It was caused by degrading glue from tape that had been applied to its verso, probably in the Havell shop, to mend a tear. These before and after images reveal the miraculous transformation.
Below excerpted from Roberta J.M. Olson, Audubon’s Aviary: The Complete Watercolors for “The Birds of America”
Audubon executed this trio of active and engaging avian characters in Louisiana. “I have always imagined,” he wrote, “that in the plumage of the beautiful Ivory-billed Woodpecker, there is something very closely allied to the style of colouring of the great VANDYKE [the seventeenth-century painter Anthony Van Dyck, known for his panache and full-bodied Baroque palette]. The broad extent of its dark glossy body and tail, the large and well-defined white markings of its wings, neck, and bill, relieved by the rich carmine of the pendent crest of the male, and the brilliant yellow of its eye, have never failed to remind me of some of the boldest and noblest productions of that inimitable artist’s pencil. So strongly indeed have these thoughts become ingrafted in my mind, as I gradually obtained a more intimate acquaintance with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, that whenever I have observed one of these birds flying from one tree to another, I have mentally exclaimed, ‘There goes a Vandyke!’”
Audubon positioned the carmine-crested male—with a length of twenty-one inches and wingspan of thirty—and the two females on a dead tree covered with lichens, and tearing its bark in search of insects. He remarked that this species, which he labeled the “great chieftain of the Woodpecker tribe,” generally “moves in pairs. . . . Their mutual attachment is, I believe, continued through life . . . ; these birds seldom, if ever, attack living trees, for any other purpose than that of procuring food, in doing which they destroy the insects that would otherwise prove injurious to the trees.”
The ornithological jury is still out about the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (sometimes called the “Lord God Bird,” allegedly because its beautiful appearance provokes this exclamation from first-time viewers). Is it extinct or on the brink of extinction, if recent “sightings” are credible? In Audubon’s era, these woodpeckers were harvested for their beauty, and JJA notes that Native American chiefs wore belts ornamented with the tufts and bills of the species, which were highly valued. Today most of their habitat, in dark swamps with gigantic cypresses, has been destroyed, leaving them without refuge. It is probable that their characteristic haunting cry—pait, pait, pait—has been silenced forever. Other than in old photographs and film footage from the 1930s, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker lives only in Audubon’s superb vignette.
This black and white photograph is taken from the original footage of the 1935 expedition to film the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Singer Tract of Louisiana. A mule-drawn cart carried the equipment into the swamp. It shows an Ivory-billed Woodpecker at its nest cavity, filmed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology founder Arthur Allen and colleagues in Louisiana. Courtesy of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.