Death in the Family

A Shadow and a Song

by Mark Jerome Walters
Chelsea Green, 238 pp., $21.95

Federal and State Endangered Species Expenditures: Fiscal Year 1990

compiled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service


Some years ago I went along on a pack trip into the high pine country of the Sierra Madre in northern Mexico to look for the Imperial Ivory-billed Woodpecker. My companions were John Rowlett and Victor Emanuel, both highly qualified bird watchers who now lead nature tours. The bird we were looking for was a huge woodpecker, the world’s largest, almost two feet in height, the size of a raven. The bird was thought to be extinct—not seen authoritatively since 1954, when a dentist named W.L. Rheim spotted a pair 100 kilometers south of Durango; four years later, returning to the Sierra Madre, he met an Indian on the trail carrying a dead Imperial, very likely one of the pair he had seen earlier.

Nonetheless, the occasional rumor that the bird had been spotted gave us hope, and so did the vast stretches of pine forest: it seemed inconceivable that the woodpecker was not in there somewhere. Rowlett had learned from tapes the call of the American Ivory-bill, which was thought to be close to the Imperial’s, and he would stand on the ridges, hands cupped to his mouth, and call into the pines. No reply. A day or so before we backpacked out, we met a logger who had eaten an Imperial Ivory-bill fourteen years ago. He told us this with a broad innocent smile, a gold tooth shining in it. Victor, translating from a rush of Spanish, said, “He tells me that it was un gran pedazo de carne—a great piece of meat.”

The reasons for the woodpecker’s decline were evident enough. Not only was it shot as a campfire delicacy and its feathers used to decorate Indian headdresses, but for a pair to breed successfully, it needs an enormous, undisturbed tract of pine forest—probably as much as 2,000 acres. From time to time we could hear, if the wind through the pines was right, the thin, high whine from a sawmill settlement named Pescadores.

The sad lot of the Imperial Woodpecker came to my mind while reading Birds in Jeopardy by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. The Imperial is not mentioned since the authors have restricted their listings to the “imperiled and extinct birds” of the US and Canada, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico. But the authors discussed our own smaller, native Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), which will be declared extinct this year unless documented proof of its existence is produced. Its last known population was in the 120–square mile “Singer [Sewing Machine Company] Tract” along the Tensas River in Louisiana. In 1948 the area was cleared for soybean production.

Thus, almost surely, the Ivory-bill will join four species native to the continental US and Canada which have become extinct—the Labrador Duck; the flightless Great Auk, a bird so tame that it could be herded across gangplanks into holding pens aboard ship; the Passenger Pigeon, once so abundant that it was though to account for one fourth of all American land…

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