1863_17_066_IvorybilledWoodpecker

John James Audubon
Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), Study for Havell pl. 66, ca. 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)
New-York Historical Society, purchased for the Society by public subscription from
Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.66

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.

Summary of the status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)
Compiled by Roberta J.M. Olson

“All About Birds,” the site of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, states that the bird, which during the mid-twentieth century was considered extinct, may have resurfaced in 2005. The site describes the species and its status, thusly: “The largest of the woodpeckers north of Mexico and the third largest in the world, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was a bird of old-growth forests of the Southeast. Destruction of its forest habitat caused severe population declines in the 1800s, and only a handful of birds remained into the 20th century. It was thought to have gone extinct in the middle of the twentieth century. The bird was rediscovered in the ‘Big Woods’ region of eastern Arkansas in 2005, but has proven difficult to relocate since then.” For a fuller account of this story, including conservation efforts see: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/ivory-billed_woodpecker/id. “The Cornell Lab and its partners conducted an intensive five-year search of bottomland hardwood forests in the southeastern United States. Teams searched more than 523,000 acres in 8 states, beginning in Arkansas where there were multiple compelling sightings and a few seconds of video were captured in 2005. Though no definitive evidence of a surviving ivory-bill population was found during the recent searches, the Cornell Lab continues to analyze search data from the past five years, which will be published in an upcoming book.”

Since 2005 there have been a number of credible sightings in four locations in the south by various individuals who also noted or recorded its “kent” calls. Among them are those made in 2008 in the Pearl River Basin of Louisiana, where the bird flushed several times, allowing distant video footage and sound recordings. A putative double knock, which is characteristic of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, was captured in another video a little over a minute before a large bird with characteristics consistent with an Ivory-billed Woodpecker flew into view in the Santee River region of South Carolina. Perhaps the most optimistic statement one could make about the status of the species would be that some individuals may still remain, but the long-term future of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is uncertain at best.

Excerpted from Roberta J.M. Olson, Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for “The Birds of America”

Related Article: Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Before and After (conservation treatment)

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