For a few heady weeks in 2004 and 2005, it seemed a miracle had occurred. The ivory-billed woodpecker—the “Good Lord Bird” known for its startling size, massive white bill, and a call described as being like a “toy trumpet”—had been found living in a national wildlife refuge along the Cache River in Arkansas. Multiple sightings were reported. The sounds of woodpeckers pounding on trees were recorded. A single grainy video was shot. The presence of the bird was confirmed by everyone from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology to The Nature Conservancy.
They were all wrong. North America’s largest woodpecker is extinct, and on Wednesday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made that official. Though the supposed sightings in Arkansas brought hope, years of effort failed to find any additional evidence. The last confirmed sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker before that date was in 1944. It’s likely the bird actually vanished from the world about 80 years ago.
The striking black, white, and red coloration of the ivory-billed woodpecker, along with its status as the largest woodpecker in the United States, helped make the bird a favorite with both birders and the general public. A decade after that 1944 sighting, various individuals and groups began setting aside land in the hopes of providing a home to any surviving birds. But by then, the ivory-billed woodpecker was likely already gone, a victim of both massive overhunting and habitat destruction that saw its southern forests and swamplands replaced by homes and farms.
Once known as the Log God, or the Good Lord Bird, it’s also been called the Holy Grail Bird from the desire it sparked in many birders to one day catch a glimpse of its purple-black feathers or its bright red crest. It’s been gone for a long time, but letting it go has been hard. The inclusion of the bird on the Fish and Wildlife Service list serves as something of a graveside service for a bird few people alive ever saw, but many desperately miss.
And to make the occasion even more somber, the ivory-billed woodpecker is just one of 23 species being delisted from the Endangered Species Act because they are no longer endangered. They’re extinct.
While the ivory-billed woodpecker is the headline loss, the biggest hit is actually where it’s been for some time: Hawaii. Visitors to the islands rarely realize that almost everything they see—every plant, every animal, every bird, every insect—is an import. The native organisms have been absolutely devastated by invasive species, and in particular by the actions of wild pigs, feral cats, and rats, all of which have gone through the many unique bird and plant species of the islands like a scythe.
On this official list are birds that carried the native names Kauai akialoa and nukupuʻu, both of which were known for their long, thin, curving bills. Joining them is the Kauai `o`o, which had a distinctive call described as like flute-song, and the brilliantly colored Maui akepa and Molokai creeper. There are still 650 species on Hawaii and U.S. island territories in the Pacific that are carried on the Endangered Species List. Most of them exist on just a single island. Many have not been seen in years.
Another group of organisms that have been ravaged, but which lack the sharp beauty and personality of the vanished birds, are freshwater mussels. Eight species met their official end on Wednesday. The U.S. once had far more diversity of these freshwater organisms than anywhere else on the planet, with streams in the Southeast particularly blessed by a wide diversity of mussels. But agriculture, industry, and the channelization of streams to control flooding have wiped out species after species over the years. No one is making songs about the southern acornshell or the upland combshell, and there are few mourners for the tubercled-blossom pearly mussel that once lived throughout the heart of the U.S. right up into Canada. But they are gone, and whatever roles they played in the ecosystem of the continent are sitting empty now or inhabited by invasive species.
We’re also saying goodbye to the Scioto madtom. Madtoms are fish—tiny little catfish with tails that look more like tadpoles than their larger relatives. They’ve very good at hiding, so many people never realize they’re around. But in the pebble-bottomed stretches of a natural stream, they can exist by the dozens and by the hundreds, lurking under stone ledges and among the water grass, preying on insect larvae and even smaller fish. In the muddy straight streams that have been channelized, there are none. The Scioto madtom lived in Ohio, but no one has found one since 1957.
A fish here, a mussel there, a bird or two gone missing. That’s how the world goes away. Already 96% of all large animals on the planet are either humans or the animals that humans raise for food. Everything else, from blue whales on down, has to squeeze into the remaining 4%. With pollution, habitat loss, and the pressure created from the human-driven climate crisis, that space is ever smaller.
The ivory-billed woodpecker actually had a slightly smaller Cuban variety. It was last seen in 1987. And though the Good Lord Bird was large, the largest woodpecker in the world is Mexico’s Imperial Woodpecker. It was last seen in 1957.
The Endangered Species Act has proven successful in saving some species. But for others, delisting isn’t graduation. It’s the last memorial. We say their names, we recall their images, and we hear their songs no more.
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