The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has officially declared the Ivory Billed Woodpecker to be extinct, and it is with great sadness that birdwatchers must reconcile themselves to the fact that they will never glimpse this elusive denizen of the woods. This regal, almost mythical, woodpecker that has lured naturalists to remote swamps and woodlands for years has gone the way of the Carolina Parakeet and the Passenger Pigeon. Never again will the undulating flight of this mysterious woodpecker be seen in the morning mist of a cypress swamp, nor will its haunting call reverberate through a primeval forest.
Alas, an avian chapter is closed, but here at home the Earth Lady has a resident Pileated Woodpecker, which is very similar and frequently mistaken for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. The Pileated Woodpecker is North America’s largest woodpecker, and it has stopped many an inveterate birdwatcher in his/her tracks. Crow-sized, this handsome woodpecker has black plumage and a red crest, comparable to Woody Woodpecker’s. It has a black bill, white chin, and white stripes that run from its bill to its breast. In flight, the white on the underside of the wings can be seen. The call of the Pileated Woodpecker is loud, almost cacophonous, and will certainly garner one’s attention. Frequently, this woodpecker is heard more than it is seen.
Mature hardwood forests with a smattering of dead trees are the preferred habitat for these woodpeckers. Pileated Woodpeckers forage for ants, termites, beetle larvae, and other insects in the trunks and limbs of dead trees, stumps, and fallen logs, and as they excavate their prey with their stout bills, the wood chips fly. The racket these woodpeckers make as they fervently hammer away like a crazed carpenter is very loud and unmistakable. Carpenter ants are their primary and preferred food source, but these woodpeckers will also eat wild fruit such as Elderberry, Sassafras, and Hackberry. Pileated Woodpeckers will also visit bird feeders, especially suet feeders.
Pileated Woodpeckers begin nesting in the spring in excavated cavities in dead trees. The male Pileated does most of the excavating, and this can take from three to six weeks of persistent hammering and drilling with its remarkable bill. The entrances to these nests are oblong. The nesting cavities are seldom reused by the Pileated Woodpeckers, but other cavity-nesting birds such as wood ducks, owls, and bluebirds will gladly take up residence once the Pileated Woodpeckers have departed.
With the rampant clearing of our forests in centuries past, the Pileated Woodpecker became rare, but as the second growth forests began to reemerge at the beginning of the 20th century, its numbers have steadily increased. The fate of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker was not so fortunate. But perhaps the demise of the Ivory Bill has taught us a lesson.
The quest for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker has inspired many a birdwatcher. In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid birdwatcher, sighted this magnificent woodpecker on a hunting trip to Louisiana, and through the years, noted ornithologists have bravely explored swamps and wetlands for a fleeting glimpse of this coveted bird. When the locals sighted this bird, they inevitably would say, “Lord, God, what a bird!” And, so it acquired the nickname, the Lord God Bird, and that is a most descriptive sobriquet.
The Ivory Billed Woodpecker is now officially extinct, but the once rare Pileated Woodpecker resides on my wooded hillside, its raucous call resounds in the woods, and I am grateful.