On September 29, 2021, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officially declared twenty three species extinct, including the long beloved ivory-billed woodpecker. The announcement drew widespread mourning among the scientific community and recreational bird watchers alike, as the elusive woodpecker, affectionately known to some as the Lord God Bird, seems to have been lost for good. The ivory-billed woodpecker has an extensive history in the United States, being the country’s largest woodpecker as well as a cultural symbol of old-growth forests across southern states. Although there have been no definitive sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker since the mid-20th century, many still claim the bird remains in existence today in the remote tropics of Cuba and criticize the wildlife service’s lack of effort into investigating the matter further. Similar assertions have been made throughout its endangerment, each garnering intense scrutiny and drawing increasing numbers of conservationists to the woodpecker’s endearing story. Analyzing these claims as well as the United States’ conservation efforts provides insight into how the species came to be declared extinct and why this matters to the average American citizen.
The ivory-billed woodpecker, known scientifically as Campephilus principalis, can be distinguished by its unique physical appearance and behavioral characteristics. This specific type of woodpecker is covered in shiny black feathers with white streaks extending along its face and body. Its strong, pointed bill allows it to crack into the bark of dead trees and consume relatively tough foods such as grubs, larvae, nuts, and fruits. They can be found in the southeastern United States and Cuba, where the moist, tropical environment of swamps and forests contain large numbers of decaying trees with thick hardwood. They can live upwards of 30 years, with female woodpeckers producing three to six eggs per mating season between January and May. The ivory-billed woodpecker leads an inconspicuous lifestyle and spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker prior to the species’ endangerment was already considered to be extremely rare. The onset of intense logging and hunting practices in the late 19th century threatened the species nearly to their extinction by the 1920s, with the last official sighting occurring in 1944. Nowadays, the continuation of urban development and habitat destruction further jeopardize the species’ chances of recovery, and the once majestic bird has yet to be seen.
In addition to the destruction of the ivory-billed woodpecker’s habitat through human expansion, understanding how the United States government manages endangered species is crucial to following the species’ journey to extinction. The federal government has previously passed legislation regarding conservation and oversees organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the FWS, among others. The Endangered Species Act, passed with bipartisan support in 1973, has proven to be the United States’ most effective legislation to protect threatened and endangered species. There are only two ways for a species’ at-risk designation to be removed: recovery or extinction. Fortunately, approximately 99% of at-risk species have avoided extinction under this law, which requires protection for critical habitat areas and implements recovery plans across varying levels of government. However, the legislation is not as infallible as it may appear. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the Act is “chronically and severely underfunded” by both the FWS and Congress. The Center found that in 2014, 25% of species supposedly protected under the Act received less than $10,000 in total. Perhaps even more alarming, 43 species received less than just $1,000 each that year, which amounts to an infinitesimal amount of the total FWS budget, let alone the multibillion-dollar federal budget dedicated to conservation. With a budget of $82 million per year, the FWS is barely able to pay for basic administrative functions. The Center suggests that to fully implement recovery plans for all listed species, the wildlife service budget must be increased to $2.3 billion per year, roughly the same amount given to oil and gas companies to extract fossil fuels. Instead, the exact opposite is happening. The budget for endangered species programs peaked in 2010 since 1995 and has declined by 18%, while in the same amount of time, the number of listed species has increased by nearly 50%. Such a budget lacks the funds to provide recovery programs for even the most critically endangered species, as was the ivory-billed woodpecker. With such shortcomings occurring in government organizations, it is unlikely that future at-risk species will receive the financial support needed to make substantial recoveries.
Claims of the ivory-billed woodpecker’s continued existence have been made ever since 1944. Despite the challenges evident in the species’ struggle for survival, many scientists and avid bird watchers have claimed to have seen the rare woodpecker across the southern United States and even into Latin America. Most notably, after a kayaker claimed to have seen one in 2004 in southern swamplands, teams of scientists went searching in hopes of finding and documenting the presence of the woodpecker, spending millions of dollars in the process. Among the teams, wildlife biologist John Fitzpatrick claimed the bird had been spotted at least seven times in eastern and central Arkansas in 2005, an impressive assertion that sparked the interest of average citizens and experts alike. Following the alleged sightings, conservation groups and government agencies invested in the protection of the woodpecker’s habitat through large land acquisitions dedicated to their recovery. In the media, news of the Lord God Bird’s miraculous return circulated through papers and radio shows, paying tribute to the legendary woodpecker and the relentless searches of wildlife enthusiasts. Although no evidence presented since its last sighting has been universally accepted, claims regarding the ivory-billed woodpecker cause similar frenzy each time one is made, an attestation to the impact of the bird on its native country.
Contrary to the popular belief of politicians, the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker suggests that American citizens truly care about the wellbeing and continued existence of wildlife. This phenomenon is known as existence value, a term for the satisfaction people feel from knowing something important still exists. For example, in response to an article published by The Washington Post regarding the woodpecker, one commenter wrote, “2005 was a special time to live in Arkansas. Arkansas normally gets nothing but bad press, but for a magical period in the mid-2000s we were proudly the home of the ivory-billed woodpecker.” As seen by the outpouring of grief for the woodpecker alone, it is evident that species conservation is a subject that concerns the entire country. The ivory-billed woodpecker captured the hearts and minds of everyday bird watchers and inspired famous naturalists like John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson, its elusive behavior intriguing wildlife scientists curious to learn more about the bird. After gaining an exalted status in the public eye, the woodpecker became a symbol for conservation efforts in the United States. In light of its extinction, as well as that of twenty two other species, concerned citizens have increasingly pressured government organizations to address the urgent issue of conservation. Yet, many species remain threatened by urban development, particularly large-scale water projects, non-native or invasive species, and climate change-induced habitat loss. Federal agencies can identify the actions necessary for species recovery, but it is ultimately dependent on those in power to dedicate the funding and personnel needed to enact meaningful change for future at-risk species.
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