As I suspect most birders did, I read with sadness the news accounts late last week that the ivory-billed woodpecker was at last declared extinct. The New York Times story included video I had not previously seen of those magnificent creatures in Louisiana in 1935.
I can’t remember when I first learned about the ivory-billed woodpecker. It was either a story in the New Yorker about the (futile) search to find it in the disappearing woods of the American South, or it might have been in the book, “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers, A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds” by Christopher Cokinos.
What I do remember is that even while clinging to the hope that the New Yorker piece raised, I knew the “Lord God Bird” was doomed. But it was the Cokinos book — chronicling the last day in life of the last passenger pigeon, Martha, at the Cincinnati Zoo and other vanished species — that really made me grieve.
Flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the skies of this North American continent at one point, just as the buffalo dominated the Great Plains. But our American forbears shot and hunted them for sport, killing off the former and nearly wiping out the latter.
Cokinos relates the heartrending tales of multiple birds erased by the encroachment of us humans, we of the big brains arrogantly obliterating anything and anyone in our path to fulfill manifest destiny.
I was fortunate to tour the Cornell ornithology lab early in my days working at Princeton University. The lab’s collection of bird specimens is an incredibly rich resource. With the Cokinos book still fresh in mind, curiosity got the better of me and I asked if there were specimens of the ivory-billed woodpecker.
There were, and the scientist giving us the tour pulled out a drawer and picked up the lifeless body of one. My head told me to kneel in reverence, but all I could do was offer a meager “thank you” to our host.
As millions of birds relocate during the fall migration, I’m rooting for them all. May they avoid our skyscrapers and find new routes to our diminished wild lands as they make their way to their seasonal homes.