The Life of the Skies

by Jonathan Rosen

Hardcover, 324 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, List Price: $24 | purchase

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The Life of the Skies
Author
Jonathan Rosen

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Book Summary

The author of Eve's Apple and an avid bird-watcher looks at America's fascination with birding and the diverse roles of birds—historical, literary, scientific, and spiritual—in a culture caught in the middle of its desire to both conquer and conserve, as he studies the meaning of a hobby born out of a simultaneous industrialization and longing for the natural world.

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Excerpt: The Life Of The Skies

PART I
BACKYARD BIRDS
If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look
any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there,
I never really lost it to begin with. Is that right?
–DOROTHY, in The Wizard of Oz
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1.
THE GHOST BIRD
I’m gonna go to Slidell and look for my joy
Go to Slidell and look for my joy
Maybe in Slidell I’ll find my joy
Maybe in Slidell I’ll find my joy
—LUCINDA WILLIAMS,
“Joy,” from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
As a rule I tend to avoid activities that require snake-proof boots. But when I learned about a possible sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker I knew at once that I would be going down to the Louisiana swamp where the bird was reportedly seen in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area. This was in the fall of 2000, before September 11 darkened and diverted my vision, before Hurricane Katrina virtually destroyed the Pearl River refuge, before a purported 2004 sighting of the woodpecker in Arkansas became national news, before my second child was born. In short, a lifetime ago.
I had been birdwatching only about five years at that point, and though I was quite devoted, I wasn’t then and am not now a die-hard “lister,” the sort of person who rushes off, binoculars in hand, whenever a rare bird is spotted. (The British call such people “twitchers,” as if birdwatching were a disease of the central nervous system.) I was and am a simple birdwatcher, a much more comprehensive and to me appealing term that makes room for King Solomon, Roger Tory Peterson, and millions of people with backyards and bird feeders. But though I am no twitcher, news of an ivory-billed woodpecker sighting did make me jump, and that is because the ivory-billed woodpecker wasn’t a rare bird. It was extinct.
That, at least, was the verdict of many experts who had been pronouncing the bird gone since 1944. Consulting guidebooks in preparation for my trip in 2000, I discovered that the American Bird Conservancy’s field guide, All the Birds of North America, listed the ivory-bill, alongside the passenger pigeon, the great auk, and the Carolina parakeet, in its “Extinct Birds” section. There was no mention of the bird at all in the recently published Sibley Guide to Birds or in Kenn Kaufman’s new Birds of North America. My National Geographic guide more circumspectly referred to the bird as “on the brink of extinction,” and my Peterson guidebook dutifully described the bird, but then added, cagily, “very close to extinction, if indeed, it still exists.”
Extinction. The finality of the word sends a shiver down the spine. “You take away all a man has and all he’ll ever have,” says Clint Eastwood as a hard-bitten, philosophical killer in Unforgiven. But extinction is worse—the death not merely of an individual but of all the individuals—past, present, and potential—that collectively make up a species. Once gone there is no retrieval, and the bird will have more in common with Triceratops than with the American robin. This despite the fact that there are photographs of the ivory-bill, recordings of its voice, and even a silent movie of its nesting habits, made in the 1930s, when the bird was studied in one of its last redoubts—an area of old-growth forest in Louisiana that was, despite a fight waged by conservationists, ultimately felled for timber.
Certainly the thrilling possibility of seeing a bird considered extinct for sixty years was one reason I went looking for the ivory-billed woodpecker. But though a rarefied thrill, a sort of “extreme birding” that elevated the nerdiness of the daily pursuit, it was not so different, really, from the thrill of ordinary birdwatching, which this book is primarily concerned with. Even birds we take for granted today, like the Eastern bluebird and the bald eagle, have had their brush with danger and disappearance. Others may yet wind up endangered or missing in action—their fate is not necessarily in our hands but in the hands of governments who control remote rain forests and mountain regions where birds we consider “ours” during migration spend the winter.
And even birds my guidebook calls “common,” like the gorgeous scarlet tanager or the Baltimore oriole, can be hard to spot as they flit in and out of the leaves. They require patience and a pair of binoculars. And warblers, the jewels in the crown of spring migration, are only a few inches in length. Looking for songbirds in spring has a special urgency because migration tends to pick up just as the trees are leafing out and there is a sort of race between the birds and spring itself. The deeper into spring, the more birds—and the harder it is to see them. Every day the balance shifts; it’s like a chess match where the players keep smacking the clock after every move—just when things get really interesting, you run out of time.
But the ivory-bill has been flitting in and out of history, in and out of extinction, for a hundred years. Looking for it takes what is implicit in birding—the precariousness of the natural world, the urge to recover, to collect, to conquer, and yet to preserve—and makes it explicit. From the moment I learned about it, the bird had a haunting hold on my imagination.
I was not alone. The ivory-bill in particular has what environmentalists refer to as “charisma,” a sort of magical aura that has affected bird-watchers since they started noticing the bird. For one thing, the ivory-bill is—or was—very big. At twenty inches, the bird was America’s largest woodpecker and the third-biggest woodpecker in the world after the now (presumably) extinct imperial woodpecker, which lived in Mexico, and the Magellanic woodpecker, which still hangs on in South America.
The ivory-bill also has a reputation for unconquerable defiance that, along with its great size, earned it the name King of the Woodpeckers. The habitat of the ivory-bill was old-growth forest, trees that had lived for hundreds of years, and the bird carries with it an aspect of the forest it lived in. It is a sort of un-tamed emblem of the now-vanished American wilderness. The white bill of the bird has been discovered in Native American graves. It continues to have an almost totemic force for birders today.
Never common, the bird had an indomitable spirit that may well be what doomed it. That at least is the prevailing fantasy: it simply could not stand the encroachments of man. Alexander Wilson, the Scottish-born father of American ornithology, who died in 1813, offered an account of an ivory-bill that he had shot and captured in Wilmington, North Carolina. His description offers as good a report as any of a wild creature fighting to the last.
Wilson brought his wounded bird to a hotel room where he left it alone for an hour; when he returned, he discovered that the bird had hammered its way through the wall nearly to freedom: “The bed was covered with large pieces of plaster; the lath was exposed for at least fifteen inches square, and a hole, large enough to admit the fist, opened to the weather-boards; so that, in less than another hour, he would certainly have succeeded in making his way through.”
Wilson then tied the bird to a table and left again to find it some food. This time when he returned he discovered that the bird had “almost entirely ruined the mahogany table to which he was fastened, and on which he had wreaked his whole vengeance.” While he was drawing the bird (which was Wilson’s object in capturing it), the ivory-bill managed to attack and cut Wilson in several places, and “on the whole he displayed such a noble and unconquerable spirit that I was frequently tempted to restore him to his native woods.” Wilson resisted the temptation and watched “with regret” as the bird, which refused all food, died after three days.
But the bird was not only tough, it was beautiful—boldly patterned black and white, with an ivory-white bill that, from base to tip, measured three inches. The male had a brilliant, blood-red crest. John James Audubon saw the woodpecker as somehow already existing in the realm of art. In his Ornithological Biography Audubon wrote:
I have always imagined, that in the plumage of the beautiful Ivory-billed Woodpecker, there is something very closely allied to the style of colouring of the great Van-dyke. The broad extent of its dark glossy body and tail, the large and well-defined white markings of its wings, neck, and bill, relieved by the rich carmine of the pendent crest of the male, and the brilliant yellow of its eye, have never failed to remind me of some of the boldest and noblest productions of that inimitable artist’s pencil. So strongly indeed have these thoughts become ingrafted in my mind, as I gradually obtained a more intimate acquaintance with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, that whenever I have observed one of these birds flying from one tree to another, I have mentally exclaimed, “There goes a Vandyke!”
I find Audubon’s fanciful description poignant because it comes out of a world so different from my own. Audubon was born in 1785 and died in 1851, before the frontier had been closed and when there were still American birds that had not been named. I require imagination to see the ivory-bill not as a painting—artistic representations of the bird are all I know.
Likening the bird, as Audubon did, to a work of art while it still haunted the forests of the South is charming; imagining that the bird is nothing but a work of art is overwhelmingly depressing. Art is long and life is short. I wanted to rediscover the bird as part of the wild world Audubon took for granted. The bird’s scientific name, despite its alien Latin, does more than Audubon’s poetic flight to put the ivory-bill back into nature: Campephilus principalis—“the princely eater of grubs,” though I have also seen the translation “principally, an eater of grubs.”
Ideally, birdwatching gives you both the symbol and the living bird. You get the Van Dyck painting that eats grubs. Bird-watching is an exercise in balance. It has a built-in acknowledgment that nature is finite: you don’t shoot the bird, you look at it. You bring along a guidebook, emblem of the library world, even as you wander out into nature in pursuit of something wild. You get the thrill of seeing an untamed creature, but immediately you cage it in its common or scientific name and link the bird, and yourself, to a Linnaean system of nomenclature that harks back to an Enlightenment notion that nature can be ordered. And behind Linnaeus lurks the biblical belief that, like Adam, we name the animals. It is simply our job.
Looking for an ivory-bill today takes the mediating nature of birdwatching to an even higher level, because in this case the quarry is a kind of ghost bird, a creature that does and does not exist. Birds have always been emblems that shuttled between the natural world and the man-made world, between science and poetry, between earth and sky. But the ivory-bill is even more of an in-between figure—flying between the world of the living and the world of the dead, between the American wilderness and the modern wasteland, between faith and doubt, survival and extinction. No wonder the bird has taken on a sort of mystical character. Its physical prowess made it king of the woodpeckers. But is it a once and future king?
Enter David Kullivan, a twenty-two-year-old forestry student at Louisiana State University. In the spring of 1999, Kullivan was out turkey hunting in southeastern Louisiana in an area called the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area. He was alone, it was early morning, and he was wearing camouflage pants, shirt, and cap. He was sitting on a tree stump holding his 12-gauge shotgun and waiting for a turkey to call when he suddenly saw a pair of very large birds that settled about twenty yards from him.
Though not a birdwatcher, Kullivan has a woodsman’s sense of the local birdlife and he knew that he had never seen these birds before. They were larger than pileated woodpeckers, which are, after the ivory-bill, America’s largest woodpecker. The birds Kullivan saw were black and white, like pileated woodpeckers, but they had more white on the wing and the bills were larger and whiter. One of the birds had a red crest. The other had a black crest. They flew to a water oak about ten yards from where Kullivan was sitting. He had what birders would call a very good look. He had brought a camera with him, in the hope of recording the turkey he planned to shoot, but it was zipped into his turkey vest and he decided it was better to study the birds as carefully as possible rather than risk taking his eye off them.
The bird with the red crest, which Kullivan decided was the male, began to call. Kullivan described the sound as a “loud, nasal kent.” After a few minutes the birds flew off, but Kullivan continued to hear the call for some fifteen minutes after the birds were gone. He abandoned his turkey hunt and spent the rest of the day chasing the birds through the woods, but he never got another decent look.
Unfortunately, only a photograph would have given Kullivan’s sighting authority. Adding to his difficulties was the fact that it was April Fools’ Day—not an auspicious time to announce the appearance of an extinct bird. Kullivan admits he was afraid to go public, but he never doubted it was the right thing to do. When spring break was over that Monday, he went to see his professor of zoology, Vernon Wright.
Wright was in many ways already a believer in the continued existence of ivory-billed woodpeckers. He’d been fielding reports of sightings for twenty years, and though he himself had never seen the bird, he firmly believed it was out there. It was Wright who had told his class about the ivory-bill, along with several other animal species presumed extinct but still rumored to live in the heart of the swamps and forests of Louisiana. In some sense, he had prepared his students for a sighting by telling them the bird was still out there, which, depending on your point of view, increased the likelihood of a credible sighting or diminished it by planting the image of the bird already in his students’ minds.