Friday, April 29, 2005

Hope is the thing with feathers

The ivory-billed woodpecker lives! The last undisputed sighting in the United States was in the 1940s, and the bird was thought to be extinct.

The ivory-billed woodpecker has almost mythic status. It is a large bird with a wingspan of nearly 3 feet, shiny black plumage marked by distinctive white stripes, a magnificent scarlet crest (on the male), and the long ivory bill that gives the bird its name. It is sometimes called the Lord God Bird because when folks saw it they exclaimed: "Lord, God, what a bird!"

In Audubon's painting of a male and two females (above), the birds have something of the look of gaily-colored pterodactyls. Audubon frequently observed ivory-billed woodpeckers. Like them, he loved the solitude of wild forested places. Soon the woodpecker's isolated refuge will be aswarm with birders seeking to augment their life lists.

The early-20th-century ornithologist Frank Chapman described the call of the ivory-billed woodpecker as "the distant note of a penny trumpet." There are no more penny trumpets, but apparently there's at least one ivory-billed woodpecker toot, toot, tooting in Arkansas.

And why are we so thrilled? Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of all species that have ever lived on Earth are extinct. Extinction is a necessary engine of evolution, a corollary of the thrust toward biological complexity and diversity. Without extinction, we would not be here. But then, we are here, and something wonderful has changed. As conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote: "For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun."