Monday, July 16, 2012

Twilight for the Lord God Bird

I was born in 1939 in a small town in upstate New York. By that time, the territory of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, which before 1800 had ranged from Texas to South Carolina, had been reduced to a tract of land in Louisiana. The demand for lumber in the US after the Civil War had stripped the South of its vast woodlands. The need for boxes to support the effort in World War II then caused the destruction of those woods in Louisiana. That year, A Cornell University PhD student, working with the National Audubon Society, reported that there might be only 25 Ivory Bills alive in the US, mostly in that Louisiana tract, and only one mating pair.
Twilight for the Lord God Bird
A painting in watercolor and colored pencil by Forrest C. Greenslade, PhD

The last recorded sighting of an Ivory Bill was in 1944. I was in grammar school. We had a Junior Audubon Club in our school – I was an enthusiastic member. What I remember most in the little magazine that we received, was J. J. Audubon’s iconic painting of a family of Ivory Billed Woodpeckers. He had painted it in the 1820s, and published it in 1831 in Birds of America. Back then, the Ivory Bill was known by many colloquial names: the Van Dyke, White Back, Pate, Tit-Ka. Audubon noted, that because of the size and beauty of the Ivory Bill, many folks exclaimed “Lord God, what a bird”.

Audubon and the Junior Audubon Club had a lasting impact on my entire life. I was that kid you could always find turning over rocks in streams, looking for what wonders nature would disclose to me. I was lucky to study biology in high school, college and graduate school, which takes me to another encounter with the Lord God Bird.

In the early 1960s, I went to New Orleans to attend graduate school at Tulane University. Our library had an original elephant folio copy of Audubon’s Birds of America. We were actually allowed to touch this precious book. I luxuriated in leafing through Audubon’s wood cut prints, and again the Ivory Billed Woodpecker painting was my favorite. I was taking a program in Biological Sciences. This required courses ranging from Botany to Molecular Biology and Natural History. In an Avian Biology course, we went on a field trip to a swampy woodland about an hour from New Orleans. Deep in this wild place, we all swore that we caught a glimpse of an Ivory Bill.

Piliated Woodpecker
Watercolor and colored pencil by Forrest
There had been a lot of rumors of Ivory Bill sightings all around the country. Most experts dismissed these observations as mistaking the slightly smaller and common Piliated Woodpecker for the Ivory Bill. Did we make the same mistake? Probably – but this experience is a memory that I have cherished for a lifetime.

My curiosity about the natural world, led me to a life as scientist and organizational executive. Now in retirement, I am again doing what I did in grammar school -- turning over rocks and sculpting and painting the wonders that nature discloses.

In 2002, a six-person international team searched the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area in Louisiana. They found some signs of Ivory Bills but no birds. In the last couple of years, there were purported sightings in Arkansas and Florida. Is the Ivory Billed Woodpecker extinct? Likely – But if not extinct, the Lord God Bird is in its twilight.

My painting is my wish that this magnificent bird has a little more time.


Notes: Historical information was taken from Phillip Hoose's excellent book, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, Melanie Kroupa Books, 2004, New York. To my knowlege, there are no colored photographs of the Ivory Bill. I used J. J. Audubon's painiting, which he did from dead field specimens, to guide my selection of colors.


Anonymous said...

Wow from BJ

Emma said...

When I read in the newspaper, those several years ago, that they thought they had caught a glimpse of one in the swamps, I'll admit that I teared up. I know it's unlikely, but what better thing to hope for than the unlikely? Lovely, Forrest.

Sandy said...

Awesome! And important...