Studying a Vanishing Bird

Pioneering study by Cornell researchers in the 1930s captured the first motion picture images and sounds of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers

In the spring of 1924, ornithologist Arthur Allen, founder of the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell, was traveling with his wife Elsa in Florida when they decided to check out an alleged sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Ivory-bills had not been seen for several years. The Allens managed to find a pair and decided to study the birds by observing them but elected not to camp nearby for fear of disturbing what might be the last nesting pair. Much to their dismay, a pair of local taxidermists got a permit and shot the birds legally while the Allens were away.

In the early 1930s Mason Spencer, a state legislator from northeastern Louisiana, shot a male ivory-bill in a huge tract of virgin timber, known as the Singer Tract, along Louisiana's Tensas River and word went out to the ornithological community.

In 1935 Allen organized the Brand-Cornell University-American Museum of Natural History Ornithological Expedition. The expedition--including Cornell professors Arthur Allen and Peter Paul Kellogg, James Tanner, a graduate student, and bird artist George Miksch Sutton, who was also an ornithologist and curator of the Cornell bird collection--traveled across America to record motion pictures and sounds of vanishing birds.

In 1924, Allen and his graduate student, Peter Paul Kellogg, had assisted the Fox-Case Movietone Corporation in in recording bird songs on motion-picture sound film, the first bird song recordings ever made. Allen recognized the tremendous potential for using sound recordings to study birds.

One of the goals of the 1935 expedition was to check out the 81,000-acre Singer Tract where Mason had shot an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. After grilling Spencer about his sighting, the expedition headed into the swamp led by Jack Kuhn, the local game warden. After three days in the swamp, the expedition found an ivory-bill nest 40 feet above the ground in a cavity in a red maple.

"The whole experience was like a dream," wrote Sutton in his 1936 book Birds in the Wilderness. "There we sat in the wild swamp, miles and miles from any highway, with two ivory-billed woodpeckers so close to us that we could see their eyes, their long toes, even their slightly curved claws with our binoculars."

Allen set up Camp Ephilus--a play on the scientific name of the ivory-bill (Campephilus principalis) --within 200 yards of the nest and kept watch, recording every detail of the birds' behavior, for a couple of weeks. Peter Paul Kellogg had stayed in town moving all of the equipment from their truck to a wagon that would be hauled to the campsite by mules. It was impossible to get a motor vehicle into the swamp.

When Kellogg arrived, he and the crew produced the first motion pictures and sound recordings ever made of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Tape recorders had not yet been invented so Kellogg recorded bird sounds using the movietone system.

The movietone system used to record the ivory-bills worked by converting vibrations striking the microphone into electrical impulses and then into light of varying intensity, which was captured on motion-picture film. After the film was developed, the process would be reversed, converting the light images back into electrical impulses, which were then converted back into sound.

The sounds of the ivory-bills captured by Kellogg in 1935 are the ones still used for playback today by ivory-bill searchers. They are also the sounds against which modern recordings of possible kent calls are checked.

From 1937 to 1939, Jim Tanner spent two years studying ivory-bills in the Singer Tract and searching for them across the South as part of his PhD dissertation for Cornell. Funded by the National Audubon Society, Tanner produced an in-depth report, which was later published as The Ivory-billed Woodpecker. In 1939 Tanner estimated there might have been 22 to 24 ivory-bills remaining in the United States, with not more than 6 to 8 birds at any one place. Although Tanner spent months checking out sightings of the ivory-bill around the South, the only birds he ever found were in the Singer Tract. He concluded that the only hope of saving the species lay in preserving that ancient forest.

The Singer Tract (named after the sewing machine company who owned the land) was the largest piece of primeval forest left in the South. The logging rights to the Singer Tract had been sold to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. The National Audubon Society mounted a campaign to save the Singer Tract but it only accelerated the rate of cutting. The Chicago Mill and Lumber Company had no interest in saving the forest or compromising with John Baker, the president of the National Audubon Society. Baker wanted to buy the rights to the trees and obtained a pledge of $200,000 from the governor of Louisiana for that purpose.

The lumber company refused the offer and the Singer Sewing Machine Company, which still owned the land, refused to intercede. Richard Pough, who later became the first president of The Nature Conservancy, was sent by Audubon to search for the remaining ivory-bills in the Singer Tract in December 1943-January 1944. In a letter to John Baker he wrote, "It is sickening to see what a waste a lumber company can make of what was a beautiful forest." He found one female ivory-bill in a small stand of uncut timber, surrounded by destruction.

The artist, Don Eckelberry, who also worked for Audubon, went to the swamp in April 1944 looking for the bird Pough had spotted. He found her at her roost hole and spent two weeks watching and sketching her. Eckelberry's time in the swamp is the last universally accepted sighting of one of these birds in the United States.