Ivory-billed Woodpecker Journal

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Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)

After more than 50 years of presumed extinction, the "Lord God Bird" has appeared, like a ghost, in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas. Despite intense predation by collectors, and the logging of millions of acres of Southern bottomland forests, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has miraculously endured.

The bird's nickname originated because people cried "Lord God, look at that bird!" when they saw the largest woodpecker in North America. Measuring nearly two feet long, with a three-foot wingspan, the Ivory-billed is slightly larger than a crow. It has glossy blue-black feathers and white stripes that zigzag from each cheek and run down the sides of its neck, forming white suspenders that curve to make a saddle on the lower back. Its long bill is bone-white; its eyes bright yellow. The male has a startling scarlet crest while the crest of the female is entirely black.

People often mistake the Pileated Woodpecker for an Ivory-billed because the Pileated is also large, but the Ivory-billed has white on its back while the Pileated's back is all black. Other defining characteristics of the Ivory-billed include its white bill, a nasal "kent kent" call, loud double-rap drumming on trees, and the size of the tree cavities it creates.

Marvels of evolution, woodpeckers are members of the Picidae family equipped with strong zygodactyl feet (two toes in front, two in the rear), stiff tails, and tongues so long they curl up inside their thick skulls when not in use. The scientific name of the Ivory-billed is Campephilus principalis, or "principal lover of caterpillars," referring to its appetite for beetle larvae. The bird strips bark from large dead and dying trees to find them.

Since the 1980's, the Nature Conservancy has safeguarded hundreds of thousands of acres in the Big Woods. Over the years cooperative conservation and restoration efforts unknowingly created a sanctuary for the Ivory-billed, which depends on large unfragmented tracts of floodplain forest. But even now, our insatiable appetite for lumber and land threatens this bird and many other species. A symbol of hope on wings, this splendid recluse of the swamp inspires and challenges our commitment to protect the habitat it needs.

artwork by John Sill © 2005 

text by Kara Jean Hagedorn

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