Sewing a Shroud for the Lord God Bird

In 1943 Mississippi Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr. along with the governors of three other Southern states—Sam Jones of Louisiana, Prentiss Cooper of Tennessee and Homer Adkins of Arkansas—joined in an action that remains unique in the annals of Southern politics: a last-ditch effort to save a species of bird from extinction. Magnificent in flight, majestic in repose, the ivory-billed woodpecker was the largest woodpecker in North America, second in the world only to its closest relative, the imperial ivory-bill of Central America and the Caribbean. The ivory-bill at first sight is said to have caused newcomers to the primeval woodlands of the South where it once lived to exclaim, “Lord God, what is that thing?!” As the deep and beautiful woodlands of the South fell to the axe during the late 19th and early 20th century the ivory-bill, which required vast tracts of timber to survive (an estimated 2.5 square miles of old-growth forest for a mating pair), fell into decline largely due to starvation, though mindless shooting by trigger-happy gunmen was also a significant factor.

By the first decades of the 20th century, only one sizeable portion of virgin Southern woodland remained intact, a vast area of dense mixed long-leaf pine and deciduous trees that stretched from the Brazos River in Texas to the Sabine River on the Texas/Louisiana border between Nacogdoches and Galveston once covering over 2 million acres, but by the 1930s had shrunk to a mere 800,000 that in an odd twist of fate had been purchased by the Singer Sewing Machine Company to secure hardwood for machine cabinets. This, the so-called Singer Tract, was also the last documented home of the ivory-bill, and the fate of this splendid bird indeed hung by a thread, since in 1937 the Singer Company sold logging rights to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, and in the next year cutting had already begun. Under the agreement, land logged by Chicago Mill and Lumber became that firm’s property, but until then, the Singer Company still held ownership. The survival of the ivory-bill became a subject of national consideration (a significant gesture since the country was involved in the biggest conflict in history) involving not only the four aforementioned governors, but President Roosevelt, the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the directors of the National Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the War Production Board and the National Audubon Society.

In December of 1943, the chairman of the board of the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company met with the brokers of a potential land deal that would have established a national park and refuge for the ivory-bill. The other participants were Louisiana’s conservation commissioner, the refuge director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their attorney John Baker. But despite the offer of $200,000 from the state of Louisiana to purchase the remaining Singer Tract, James F. Griswold, chairman of the Chicago Mill and Lumber board, refused to deal. In what is perhaps the ugliest and most blatant admission of corporate greed and irresponsibility in the history of the United States, Griswold said, “We are just money grubbers. We are not concerned, as are you folks, with ethical considerations.” In a similar vein, Singer Company treasurer and vice president John Morton told Baker that Singer “didn’t care where its money came from”, and refused to intervene. Subsequent offers proved fruitless, and the Singer Tract was clear-cut (by German POWs, no less), creating a wasteland of baked mud studded with stumps and sending the Lord God bird over the abyss into extinction.

Painting by John James Audubon
Painting by John James Audubon

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