Let’s all drink a toast to the ivory-billed woodpecker. Its near-miraculous return from the forever of extinction is truly one of the most encouraging ornithological events in recent memory. Though many had refused to give up hope, and reports of sightings came in over the years, the woodpecker’s reemergence is as dramatic as if a dodo decided to stroll out of the jungles of present-day Mauritius. Now, the race is on to find at least one breeding pair. Let’s hope we don’t blow this rare second chance to preserve one of our most magnificent native birds.
There will be no last-minute reprieves for birds such as the great auk, Labrador duck, heath hen, Carolina parakeet, or passenger pigeon. These Hawaiian and North American birds once numbered in the millions and were widespread across the continent, but today are as extinct as dinosaurs. For them, the cause wasn’t a meteor from outer space, but more mundane factors such as overhunting and extensive land clearing. In the Southeast, market hunting and their inconvenience to the burgeoning fruit industry did in the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. The latter was considered an agricultural pest, and its habit of returning to a dead or wounded flock member lent itself to mass slaughter. Today, 14 species and subspecies are federally listed in the Southeast. Most of them are Coastal Plain species such as the wood stork, Florida scrub-jay, and least tern. Only two federally listed bird species—the bald eagle and peregrine falcon—have made any sort of comeback, thanks in part to the banning of pesticides such as DDT. Rare and endangered species these days are less likely to suffer from dramatic hunting pressure than they are to the more insidious, but still harmful, effects of habitat loss. Land-use changes, forest fragmentation, wetland loss, and coastal and interior development all contribute to a species’ slow decline. The red-cockaded woodpecker is a primeexample of a bird that evolved into a habitat that humans happened to covet—old-growth longleaf pine forests. The woodpeckers nest and feed in open stands of mature pine where they live year-round. Extensive logging around the turn of the century began the decline, and continuing habitat loss threatens the estimated 20,000 remaining birds.Other birds, such as the northern saw-whet owl, are relatively common in the boreal forests of the north, but maintain small breeding populations along the highest spruce-fir spines of the southern Appalachians stretching from West Virginia, Virginia, and into North Carolina and Tennessee. This smallest eastern owl is the size of a robin and weighs just over three ounces. A rarely seen nocturnal predator, the saw-whet owl makes a monotonous, beeping call that some liken to a saw blade being sharpened or a truck’s back-up warning signal. It is also migratory, making inexplicable fall and spring passages through high-elevation Appalachian spruce-fir forests. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists the saw-whet owl as a “bird of special concern,” a classification below the “rare and endangered” listing that would bring it under federal protection. Some scientists are worried at the effects the disappearance of the spruce-fir canopy in southwest Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee might have on the owl. Pollution, the balsam woolly adelgid, and logging all pose threats to the owls and their habitat. One might argue that, if they disappear in our part of the world, they are still thriving somewhere else. Maybe so, but it also makes our mountains poorer places, where another call of the wild is silenced because of progress, neglect, or greed. It’s also another small step toward the abyss. Unfortunately, among the extinct, there’s plenty of company.William Cocke can be reached at [email protected]