Benjamin Franklin famously suggested that the turkey, not the Bald Eagle, should have been chosen to represent the United States. In a letter to his daughter, he wrote, the eagle “is a bird of bad moral character.” Too lazy to do real work itself, it steals prey from the nests of other raptors. Too cowardly to fight, it can be scared off by attacks from birds little larger than sparrows. The turkey, on the other hand, would defend its home even against fully-armed British soldiers.
While his praise seems facetious, anyone who’s watched a turkey in the wild may agree with his commendation: turkeys are careful, surprisingly clever, and intimidating birds for their size. And somehow, they now rival or surpass the Bald Eagle as the foremost bird in the American consciousness. I’d imagine, though, that things would have turned out much differently if Franklin had ever caught a glimpse of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a bird so impressive that even 60 years after the last confirmed sighting, it still holds a massive amount of cultural and emotional significance for many Americans.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, one of the world’s largest woodpeckers, has a yard-long wingspan, a thick beak three inches in length, and claws for miles. This formidable physique is wrapped in the kind of curves and colors that make it seem like an Art Deco approximation of the archetype of woodpecker: a slim and curving neck, a prominent crest, white racing stripes, and piercing bright eyes. It’s not hard to understand why birders, hunters, and naturalists still keep hoping to catch sight of one. But this woodpecker is significant for more than simply being possibly the most stunning bird in the United States. As director Scott Crockers’s documentary Ghost Bird skillfully demonstrates, the so-called Lord God Bird embodies the paradoxes of Americans’ relationship with their rapidly-transforming natural landscape.
Ghost Bird revolves around the recent sighting of the bird near the town of Brinkley, Arkansas. Despite being unverified, the sighting spawned a flurry of activity: high-profile searches, expensive electronic monitoring equipment, premature declarations of rediscovery by the Department of the Interior, and an economic transformation in Brinkley as it responded to all the attention with souvenir shops and hospitality services. Despite the largest and most costly lost species recovery effort in history, the search results remain inconclusive.
This story, in itself, is exciting enough. The race to rediscover the species takes a surprisingly twisting route, involving missteps, false hopes, and even academic cover-ups. And it’s genuinely affecting to see some of the country’s top birders nearly choke with emotion describing their hopes and disappointments.
But Crocker gives us even more than that. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s story intersects several distinct and formative phases in the development of America’s environmental consciousness, and this cultural history is effortlessly woven into the present-day search for the bird. Both the unrestrained hunting and especially collecting that characterized the early naturalist movement, a precursor to environmentalism that established the first national parks, contributed greatly to the specie’s decline. By 1938, it was believed that only 20 birds remained, a third of which lived in old growth forests in Louisiana to which a Chicago company held lumber rights. Despite public and governmental pressure, absent any laws protecting endangered species, the company cut down every tree in the forest, an action that helped form the environmental movement.
Much, of course, has changed since the last verified sighting of the bird. The Endangered Species Act protects other species from similar fates, at least in theory. And a host of environmental regulations now exist that would have been unthinkable in the 1930s. In part, these developments can be attributed to the disappearance of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. But still, its habitat is now smaller than ever, and many other birds that actually still do exist are set to meet similar fates.
The now-ghostly Ivory-billed Woodpecker might symbolize our relationship with nature better now than ever before.