Lowery’s Ivory-Bills

George H. Lowery, Jr., (1913-1978) was founder and director of the Museum of Natural Science at Louisiana State University, and one of the most respected ornithologists in the nation. This account of his sighting of ivory-bills near Tallulah, Louisiana, is from his Louisiana Birds (1955; LSU Press).

One of the most exciting ornithological experiences of my life occurred on the rainy Christmas morning of 1935. On the previous evening my father and I, with two companions, had entered the Singer Preserve, near Tallulah.

This area was at the time a great virgin hardwood bottom land forest. We were in quest of America’s rarest bird, a species that few living ornithologists had ever seen except as a museum specimen. Indeed, until the year before, ornithologists had come to believe that this, the largest of all woodpeckers in the United States (total length twenty-one inches), had joined the ranks of the Dodo, Labrador Duck, and Passenger Pigeon.

It was a comment to this effect in the offices of the Louisiana Wild Life and Fisheries Commission that prompted a quick denial from Mr. Mason Spencer, a resident of Tallulah, who happened to be present. So incredulous was everyone of his assertion that Ivory- bills still lived near Tallulah that a permit was immediately issued to him to shoot one this with the certainty that he would produce nothing more than a “log-god,” or Pileated Woodpecker. Mr. Spencer, however, promptly vindicated himself, to everyone’s amazement, by securing a male Ivory-bill. The specimen was mounted and is still on display in the main foyer of the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans.

After several unsuccessful attempts to see this great woodpecker myself in the Singer Preserve in the summer of 1934, I was still trying on the Christmas Day mentioned above. My companions and I were out at daybreak, quietly stalking through that magnificent hardwood forest with our ears strained for only one sound-the high-pitched nasal yamp, yamp, or as some people interpret it, kent, kent, of an Ivory-bill. We saw flock after flock of Wild Turkeys, dozens of deer, and scores of “log-gods,” but no sign of the bird that we really sought.

A slow drizzling rain that began to fall did not seem to better our prospects, but suddenly, far in the distance through the great wood, a telltale sound reached our ears. Approaching cautiously in the direction indicated by the calls, we soon beheld not one but four Ivory-bills feeding on a tall dead snag! There were two males and two females, which, with their powerful bills, were proceeding to demolish the bark on this dead tree, in search, no doubt, for flat-headed beetles, or “betsy-bugs.”

I went back several times to this place, once when Drs. A. A. Allen and Paul Kellogg took motion pictures and sound recordings of an Ivory-bill at its nest. Once I even caught, before it hit the ground, a piece of wood that an Ivory-bill, in the tree above me, chipped off with a vigorous chisel-like blow of its beak.

But, at least in the Tallulah forest, and maybe everywhere in Louisiana, all that is something of the past. The great forests where Ivory-bills were struggling to survive from 1935 to 1938 are now gone. The last virgin hardwood bottom land swamp on the North American continent fell to the ax because not enough sentiment could be raised to save it! The last authenticated report of the bird in the state is of a lone female that lingered in this area in the spring of 1943 after the felling that same year of a tree that contained a nest and eggs.

It is possible that no future generation of Americans will be able to spend a Christmas morning, or any morning, watching four Ivory-billed Woodpeckers go about their daily routine amid huge redgums whose diameters are greater than the distance a man can stretch his arms. I wonder what natural beauties we shall have, aside from the mountains and the sky, a hundred years from now!

(The video below was shot by Arthur Allen in 1935, very near where Lowery and his companions saw them the same year. This video, along with Allen’s photographs, and audio recordings, constitute the last documented, definite sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The last uncontested sighting was in 1944, but on October 16, 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they are giving themselves more time to consider all the evidence before declaring the ivory-bill extinct.)

A Shroud for the Ivory-Bill

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 American history: a last-ditch effort to save a species from extinction.

Magnificent in flight, majestic in repose, the ivory-bill was the largest woodpecker in North America, second in the world 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 vast virgin woodlands of the South fell to the axe during the late 19th and early 20th century the ivory-bills, which required extensive tracts of timber to survive (an estimated 2.5 square miles of old-growth forest for a mating pair), began to starve.

By the first decades of the 20th century, only one sizeable portion of virgin Southern woodland remained intact, an area of dense mixed long-leaf pine and deciduous trees that stretched from the Brazos River in Texas to the Tensas in Louisiana. Once covering over 2 million acres, by the 1930s the “Big Thicket” had shrunk to a mere 800,000.

In an an odd twist of fate, an extensive section of this forest had been purchased by the Singer Sewing Machine Company to secure hardwood for machine cabinets. This, the so-called Singer Tract, was the last documented home of the ivory-bill, and the fate of this splendid bird indeed hung by a thread. In 1937 Singer sold the logging rights to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, and in the next year cutting began. 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 during the war years) 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.”

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, sending the Lord God bird over the abyss into certain extinction.