Last week, Durango Nature Studies presented a fascinating independent film called “Ghost Bird.” The film explores the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird thought to be extinct in North America for over 50 years, but then supposedly rediscovered in the woods of eastern Arkansas.
The film was very emotional as it built up a heady case for rediscovery, only to present facts that showed the bird was probably not there after all. I took my 8-year-old son, who actually cried as the story unfolded. It broke my heart to watch my young nature lover begin to realize that many species have been lost forever and some are struggling to survive.
The ivory-billed woodpecker was driven to extinction by a loss of forest swamp habitat caused by the clear-cutting of hundreds of thousands of acres in the 1800s. The sense of loss for these birds is compounded by the loss of such majestic eastern old-growth forests. After the timber companies left, most were turned into soybean fields.
Called “The Lord God Bird,” these woodpeckers were the ultimate symbol of wilderness, with a height of 20 inches and a wingspan of 3 feet. Their loss was also a symbol of humans’ failure to live within the limits of natural resources. Almost all species that are extinct or nearing extinction are affected by a loss of habitat.
The potential rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker prompted conservation groups to put more than $10 million into the search for the bird, as well as habitat acquisition and restoration. In addition, the Department of the Interior secretary appointed a team of more than 50 members to the largest recovery team ever assembled for an endangered species.
If only the efforts on behalf of this magnificent bird were not fueled by hope and regret. Practical steps at habitat preservation must be taken to protect all species that hope to survive. We have three federally endangered species of birds in Colorado that are on the brink of being gone forever.
The whooping crane historically nested over large areas from the Arctic coasts to Texas and Louisiana. Because of a loss of nesting habitat, their populations have been declining since the 1900s. The whooping crane has not been seen in Colorado since 2002.
The Southwest willow flycatcher is federally endangered because of massive destruction of riparian habitat, primarily caused by grazing, as well as the removal of water from streams. They are also affected by the cowbird, which replaces the eggs of the Southwest willow flycatcher with its own.
Finally, the least tern was almost wiped to extinction in the 1800s because its feathers were used for women’s hats. The tern rebounded after it received protection, but is now endangered again because of disturbances during nesting caused by human recreation along beaches and lakes.
We have some success stories of Colorado birds that have been brought from the brink of extinction. The most widely known is the peregrine falcon, whose Latin name “peregrinus” means “wandering.” These magnificent birds, which nest on cliff tops and mate for life, had been blighted 30 years ago by pesticides like DDT. Although still affected by pesticides, they have made a strong recovery and are no longer on the endangered species list.
The ivory-billed woodpecker is an example of how much something can be missed when it’s gone. The idea that a bird can come back from extinction has fueled a new tourist economy in Arkansas of people searching for the dream of second chances. Hopefully, our children and grandchildren will actually be able to see and hear birds that are here today and not have to resort to longing for the ghosts of the past.