The Race to Save the Lord God Bird

Phillip Hoose

Melanie Kroupa Books

CHAPTER ONE

SPECIMEN 60803

 

Nature does nothing uselessly.

—Aristotle

Louisiana State University—February 2002

Dr. James Van Remsen pulls open a wooden drawer and hands me an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It’s dead, of course, one of seven Ivory-bill specimens in a dark room of the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science. It feels light and stiff—more like an object than a creature that once lived and breathed. Its wings are folded tightly in on themselves like an umbrella. The hollow eyes have been stuffed with cotton. The backswept crest of this male is more orange than red now, and the bill has darkened from ivory to tarnished gold. Dangling by a string from one gray ankle is a white tag that says “CAMPEPHILUS PRINCIPALIS—LSUMZ 60803; MALE.”

I raise it up against a fluorescent light to inspect it more closely. Somehow the Ivory-bill looks both prehistoric and futuristic at the same time. The faded red crown of this big male shoots stiffly back like the bony crest of a pterodactyl, the ancient winged reptile. By contrast, other specimens show that the female has a jet-black crown that nods slightly forward and ends in a sharp point. In both sexes, a bold white stripe starts below each ear and snakes down the long neck, zagging below the shoulder and then flaring out into a white saddle that blankets the lower wing.

Any species in nature, from the tiniest insect to the Blue Whale, is a collection of design experiments, field-tested and remodeled again and again over thousands of years. By looking carefully at the way a bird is built and then thinking backward—asking questions like “Why would a wing be so long?” or “Why are its eyes on the sides of the head instead of the front?”—it’s possible to get some sense of how the bird got its food and defended itself, how widely it traveled, and what role it might have had within its ecosystem.

Of course my attention goes first to the amazing bill. It’s not really made of ivory, like an elephant’s tusk, but of bone, covered by a sheath of a special protein called keratin. It’s broad at the base, and rooted deep into the bird’s thick-boned skull to absorb the shock of pounding a tree. Its slitlike nostrils are fringed with hair to keep out sawdust. An Ivory-bill needed this big, stout crowbar of a bill to pry strips of bark off a tree, because its favorite food lay just underneath. The Ivory-bill ate some fruits and berries when they were in season, but mostly it ate grubs—the larvae of beetles. Certain kinds of beetle would attack a dying or injured tree by boring through the bark to lay their eggs, which hatched into stout, wormlike creatures—the grubs. Ivory-bills used their bills to peel the bark away from the tree and get at these fat delicacies—which were then exposed under the bark—like thieves robbing a safe.

WEIGHT-SAVING FEATURES

Specimen 60803 is nearly two feet long, but even when it was alive and still possessed all its internal organs, it weighed barely a pound. Like most birds, Ivory-bills had to be light so they could fly. Their weight-saving features included the following:

• Thin, hollow bones filled with “struts,” allowing air spaces that provide strength without adding weight.

• No jawbone, no teeth, and no vertebrae in their tails.

• A reproduction system with “external eggs,” which relieves the mother of the weight of a young bird developing within her body.

• Many neck vertebrae make it possible to reach objects with their bills instead of having to use limbs, which would add weight.

• A kite-like skeleton with fewer bones than most mammals have; the bones are fused together, providing support for flight.

As LSU specimen 60803 shows plainly, the bill was far more than just a crowbar. Its tip is a miniature chisel, engineered for the fine work of flicking out and nabbing the startled grubs that tried to squirm away. If they got too far, the Ivory-bill had one more tool to finish the job—a hard-tipped tongue lined with needle-sharp barbs. The tongue was so long that it wrapped around the inside of the bird’s skull and could be zapped out in an instant to spear a fugitive grub.

A woodpecker’s bill has to keep growing constantly throughout its life because it keeps getting worn down by smacking against wood. The same is true of a beaver’s front teeth. However, there is one amazing Ivory-bill specimen in a Cuban museum whose upper bill kept growing for some reason until it curled over the lower bill and continued on in a great arc all the way under its body. This incredible bill made the bird unable to attack trees, but it could still open its lower bill to take food. Its parents kept it alive for more than a year by feeding it termites.

I push back specimen 60803’s tag to examine a foot. Four scaly, dagger-sharp toes are clenched into a tight claw. One toe points downward, a second and third point forward, and the fourth sticks out to the side. Being able to spread out its toes helped this bird attach itself to bark and hitch its way up tree trunks and out along tree limbs. Stiff tail feathers braced it against the trunk and kept it from falling backward as it pounded away. And, as Alexander Wilson found out in his hotel room, those sharp toes could turn into deadly weapons. “When taken by the hand,” wrote Wilson, “they strike with great violence, and inflict very severe wounds with their bill as well as claws, which are extremely sharp and strong.”

DARWIN’S FINCHES

While exploring the Galápagos Islands far off the coast of South America, British scientist Charles Darwin (1809–1882) encountered a bizarre assortment of plants and animals, including swimming lizards and flightless birds.

Darwin was fascinated by the fourteen species of finch he saw. Each had a differentshaped beak and a different way of getting food with it. One sipped nectar, another cracked seeds, another scraped small insects off leaves.

Darwin came to believe that each finch species had “evolved” from a small group of birds once blown onto the Galápagos by a storm. These ancestors had landed in a kind of paradise, with no natural enemies. They could multiply until they reached the limit of their food supply. Then they had to find a new way to obtain food, or die. Darwin theorized that finches’ bills were visible records of at least fourteen such changes, or “adaptations.” After many generations, each type had changed so much it could reproduce only with its own kind and became a separate species.

As specimen 60803’s tag says, the Ivory-bill’s scientific name is Campephilus principalis, or “principal lover of caterpillars.” The Ivory-bill is one of eleven species in the genus Campephilus, found mainly in hot, tropical climates. Almost all members of the genus have black-and-white feathering, which helps them blend in with tree bark, and in most species the male has a red crest. All eleven Campephilus woodpeckers rap out the same message, a sharp two-note BAM-bam, with the first note louder than the second, delivered to tell family members where they are or to warn away any creature that might be thinking about invading a feeding or nesting area.

CAMPEPHILUS PRINCIPALIS (PART I)

In 1753 Swedish biologist Carl von Linné, known as Linnaeus, developed a system that allowed every species of plant and animal in the world to be identified by its own sequence of Latin names. This enabled people of different languages and regions of the world to talk about the same bird, mammal, reptile, fish, insect, or plant, no matter what they called it locally. This was especially important for a creature like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which was called by dozens of nicknames.

For example, specimen 60803 might have been called a “Kent” or a “Lord God bird” in one part of Louisiana, but something entirely different even a county over. Using Linnaeus’s system, everyone could know this bird by its genus name, Campephilus, and its species name, principalis.

Specimen 60803’s wings also offer clues about its life. Its long, tapered wings and streamlined tail feathers propelled it great distances to search for weakened, dying, grub-infested trees. The Ivory-bill helped regenerate the forest by starting the job of breaking apart and toppling dying trees. The trees in old forests where most Ivory-bills lived had wide-spreading limbs whose summer leaves formed a green shield that blocked sunlight from reaching the ground. The forest was dark underneath these trees. In order for sunlight to reach the ground so that new seedlings could germinate, a tree had to fall and open a hole in the canopy. Ivory-bills stripped the stilltight bark from the dying tree as they searched for grubs. Then smaller woodpeckers, ants, grubs, and other creatures could attack the tree in shifts, weakening it further until it finally fell over.

For thousands and thousands of years, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers had a steady, secure existence. They mated for life, roamed the forest in pairs, and could live to be as old as thirty. Females laid only two or three shiny white eggs at a time—the fewest of any North American woodpecker—but they didn’t need to lay many, since Ivory-bills were big and powerful enough to defend themselves against almost all predators.

I hold 60803 up close to read the rest of the specimen tag: “ROARING BAYOU, FRANKLIN PARISH; 12 JULY 1899; COLLECTED BY GEORGE E. BEYER.” Who was George E. Beyer? Why did he kill and stuff this bird, and how did it end up in the LSU museum? I decide to try to find out. Whoever he was, I suspected that by 1899, when Mr. Beyer met the future specimen 60803, things were changing fast for the Ivory-bill, and not for the better.

THE SHOWMAN

George Beyer began each day by waxing the ends of his handlebar mustache to needle-sharp perfection. His appearance was important. Besides being a first-rate biologist, Professor Beyer had a showman’s flair for attracting attention. Once he invited a newspaper reporter to witness as a small rattlesnake bit his pinky finger for several days in a row.

It was his way of testing the theory of inoculation—the notion that a person could build resistance against an infectious substance by injecting small amounts of the substance itself. The reporter relayed the shocking experiment to papers throughout the United States and Germany. Thousands of readers hotly debated whether Professor Beyer was a visionary or a downright fool. He survived, and went on to give packed public lectures on topics such as poisonous snakes, Indian mounds, and yellow fever.

As a boy in his native Germany, George Beyer had become so skilled at museum work that he was sent, at the age of eighteen, to Central America by himself to collect insects, reptiles, and birds for the Dresden Zoological Museum. After a year’s painstaking work, Beyer carefully packed all the labeled specimens into crates and put them aboard a ship bound for Germany. When he learned that everything had been lost in a shipwreck, he couldn’t bring himself to go back home. Instead, he bought a steamship ticket to the United States.

CAMPEPHILUS PRINCIPALIS (PART II)

Linnaeus’s framework for classifying and naming plants and animals had seven parts. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, like all animals, is in the kingdom Animalia (about 1.07 million species named so far). Because it has vertebrae—hollow sections of backbone strung like beads onto a nerve cord—the Ivory-bill belongs to the phylum Chordata (about 45,000 named species). So do humans. All of the world’s bird species belong to the class Aves (9,757 species). All woodpeckers and several other bird families are of the order Piciformes (375 species).

Woodpeckers alone belong to the family Picidae (179 species), distinguished from other Piciformes mainly by the arrangement of their toes—two facing forward and two back. The family is divided into 33 woodpecker genera—plural for genus. The Ivory-bill’s genus is Campephilus, whose 11 species tend to be large black-and-white woodpeckers found in warm regions. Finally, the Ivory-bill specifically is identified by its species name, principalis—first among all. So while the Ivory-bill could be introduced at fancy occasions as Animalia Chordata Aves Piciformes Picidae Campephilus principalis, we save our breath and call it by its genus and species name—Campephilus principalis.

Despite his thick German accent, he had no trouble finding work. Taxidermy—preparing specimens—was so important that Beyer’s skills were in hot demand. In 1893 he was hired to build a first-class natural history museum at Tulane University in New Orleans. From then on, George Beyer was always on the lookout for a rare or exotic specimen that would boost the museum’s reputation and pull in visitors.

When Beyer first heard a report in 1899 that there were still Ivory-billed Woodpeckers left in Louisiana, he didn’t believe it. His doubt vanished instantly when, as he wrote, “a gentleman handed me the dried head of a female Ivory-bill … informing me that he could guide me to the spot where he had shot it and several others.”

To bring back the skin of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker! That would fill the museum with visitors and would rank among the crowning achievements of Beyer’s scientific career. Beyer waited until Tulane’s summer break, hired horses and guides, and then set off in July, at the very height of mosquito season. By mid-month the party had hacked and swatted its way into a wilderness swamp in northeast Louisiana that locals called Big Lake. As soon as they broke through a perimeter of thick brush to the cypress-ringed lake, Beyer knew he had struck gold. “We could hear quite frequently the rather plaintiff [sic] but loud cry of the ‘Log-god’ for such the bird is called by those acquainted with it in that section of the state,” he wrote.

Beyer found and killed seven Ivory-billed Woodpeckers during his weeklong expedition. The highlight of his trip arrived when his eyes came to rest on a large rectangular hole near the top of a dead elm tree. Concealed behind a thick growth of poison ivy was a large, freshly cut hole. It was an Ivory-bill’s nest! “There was but one young one about,” Beyer noted, “and it remained in close vicinity of the entrance, notwithstanding that it was almost fully feathered and able to fly. Both parents were still feeding it.”

Beyer shot the entire family, cut down the top of the tree, and made an exhibit of the nest in the Tulane Museum. The Ivory-bill family attracted visitors like a magnet. As he wrote proudly (but incorrectly) to W. D. Rogers, acting president of Tulane, “it is doubtful whether any other institution outside of the U.S. National Museum possesses more than a single specimen of this species. This one group alone as it now stands in the [Tulane] Museum represents easily a value of $250.”

*   *   *

In the 1930s, a few years after George Beyer’s death, the stuffed specimens from his Big Lake trip were transferred from Tulane to the LSU museum. Seventy or so years later I hold the adult male of the family, now LSU specimen number 60803, in my hands as Dr. Remsen waits for me to finish with it. I feel transported for a few moments to the great lost forest over which this stiff, faded object once reigned. This bird heard Red Wolves howl and panthers scream. While the drumbeat of rain pelted the shiny green leaves of its poison ivy curtain, it protected its eggs in a cozy hole high above the ground.

Finally it is time for me to put 60803 back into its case. I’m filled with questions as I think about how the Ivory-bill survived so well for many thousands of years. But then, in the ninety years that passed between 1809, when Alexander Wilson shot his Ivory-bills to paint them, and 1899, when George Beyer shot his to exhibit them in a museum, the Ivory-bill’s world collapsed. What happened? I’m determined to find out. To start, I have to go back to the early 1800s and meet another great painter of birds.

 

Text copyright © 2014 Phillip Hoose