Historic Encounters

Human perspectives on the ivory-bill, prior to the 1900s

Native Americans

Bills of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker were used as decorations by Native Americans, and a thriving trade in the bills existed across much of North America. The presence of Ivory-billed Woodpecker skulls in excavations of archaeological sites outside of the known range of the woodpecker indicates the extent of the trade rather than the ancient range for the species. Ornithologist and author Jerry Jackson indicates that ivory-bills had market value among the Native Americans who seemed to view the bill as a totem of successful warfare.

Mark Catesby (1679-1749)

Englishman Mark Catesby came to the United States in 1712 to work on a natural history of the plants and animals of the North American colonies. When Catesby came across the ivory-bill he named the bird the "largest White-bill Wood-pecker" and was apparently the first person to describe the species.

Much of what we know about the Native Americans' relationship with the bird comes from Catesby's book. He writes: "The bills of these Birds are much valued by the Canada Indians, who made Coronets of 'em for their Princes and great warriors, by fixing them round a Wreath, with their points outward. The Northern Indians having none of these birds in their cold country, purchase them off the Southern People at the price of two, and sometimes three, Buckskins a bill."

Alexander Wilson (1766-1813)

Alexander Wilson immigrated to America from his native Scotland in 1794. A wildlife artist and naturalist, Wilson published the first volume of his American Ornithology in 1808--the first comprehensive account of North American birdlife based on his observations of almost 300 species.

Like many naturalists and painters of the day, Wilson shot his subjects, not with a camera but with a gun, in order to paint them from life (or rather, death). Wilson wrote of shooting and slightly wounding an Ivory-billed Woodpecker a few miles from Wilmington, North Carolina. He decided to keep the bird as a pet so he could study and illustrate it at his leisure. Upon capture, the woodpecker "uttered a loudly reiterated and most piteous note, exactly resembling the violent crying of a young child, which terrified my horse so as to nearly cost me my life."

Wilson took the bird to an inn in Wilmington, where he left the bird loose in his room while he took care of his horse. When he returned to the room, less than an hour later, the bird had nearly destroyed one wall of the room and part of the ceiling in its effort to escape.

Leaving the room again to search for grubs for the bird, Wilson decided to tether the bird to the leg of a mahogany table. Upon his return he "heard him again hard at work, [and] on entering, had the mortification to perceive that he had almost entirely ruined the mahogany table to which he was fastened, and on which he had wreaked his whole vengeance."

The ivory-bill died a few days later, much to Alexander Wilson's dismay. It "displayed such a noble and unconquerable spirit, that I was frequently tempted to restore him to his native woods," he wrote. "He lived with me for three days, but refused all sustenance, and I witnessed his death with regret."

John James Audubon (1785-1851)

Audubon encountered dozens of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers during his trips through the South in the early 19th century and wrote: "I have always imagined, that in the plumage of the beautiful Ivory-billed Woodpecker, there is something very closely allied to the style of colouring of the great Vandyke. The broad extent of its dark glossy body and tail, the large and well-defined white markings and the brilliant yellow if its eye, have never failed to remind me of some of the boldest and noblest productions of that inimitable artist's pencil."

The beautiful painting produced by Audubon--of three ivory-bills on a tree--remains one of the best-known images of the species we have today. Like all wildlife artists of the day, Audubon collected that ivory-bill family and posed them in lifelike positions in order to create his masterpiece.

Historical information adapted from The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, by Tim Gallagher, Houghton Mifflin, 2005.