The Slide Toward Extinction

Why the Ivory-billed Woodpecker disappeared in the mid-1900s

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker thrived on the great expanses of virgin timber that covered much of the South before the Civil War. These vast tracts of bottomland hardwoods were home to numerous dead and dying trees that produced beetle larvae, the ivory-bill's favorite food. After the Civil War, the lumber industry took off and the great trees of the South were felled to feed a nation starved for wood, wood, and more wood.

The destruction of the ivory-bills' habitat continued unabated through the 1940s until suddenly, there was no more timber left to cut. Gone were millions of acres of the great bottomland forests that once blanketed the southern delta regions and in its place were areas of vast destruction left after the lumber companies moved on. Habitat destruction forced the ivory-bill into smaller and more fragmented pieces of forestland. This loss of habitat certainly pushed this magnificent bird of the forest toward extinction.

The fad of collecting birds was another factor contributing to the demise of the ivory-bill once it became rare. Bird collectors, including many prominent ornithologists, became experts at targeting threatened birds to add to their collections.

There's a photograph from 1890 of famed ornithologist William Brewster sitting on a scow on Florida's Suwannee River with a freshly shot ivory-bill on his lap. Frank Chapman, later director of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History and founder of the National Audubon Society, sits a few feet away holding a double-barreled shotgun.

John W. Fitzpatrick wrote in The View from Sapsucker Woods, in the Spring 2002 issue of Birdscope, about the disappearance of the Singer Tract in Louisiana and its Ivory-bills.