Shadow of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

It has been eighty years since an Ivory-billed Woodpecker has been seen in the Okefenokee Swamp.  Many have searched with hope in their hearts for another sighting of this large woodpecker. But with the extensive lumbering of old growth in the Okefenokee in the 1920’s, it became doubtful this beautiful bird would ever be seen again in the Swamp. The Ivory-bill remains a ghost, or shadow, of the Okefenokee Swamp.

Early morning silhouette of a Pileated Woodpecker hammering a branch. Dryocopus pileatus is a reminder of the larger Ivory-billed Woodpecker that once inhabited the Okefenokee Swamp. May 4, 2020. ©williamwisephoto.com

In the late 1800’s, the naturalist Bradford Torrey searched the swamps of Florida for the Ivory-bill. Much like the searches of the last eighty years, his search came up empty as he came upon “cypress woods disfigured by the doings of lumbermen.”

“At least four of my longer excursions into the surrounding country… were made with a view to possible ivory-billed woodpeckers. First, because it was nearer, I went to the swamp, taking an early breakfast and setting forth in a fog that was almost a mist, to make as much of the distance as possible before the sun came out. My course lay westward, some four miles, along the railway track, which, thanks to somebody, is provided with a comfortable footpath of hard clay covering the sleepers midway between the rails. If all railroads were thus furnished they might be recommended as among the best of routes for walking naturalists, since they go straight through the wild country. This one carried me by turns through woodland and cultivated field, upland and swamp, pine land and hammock; and, happily, my expectations of the ivory-bill were not lively enough to quicken my steps or render me heedless of things along the way.

“Here I was equally surprised and delighted by the sight of yellow jessamine still in flower more than a month after I had seen the end of its brief season, only a hundred miles further south. Further along, a great blue heron was stalking about the edge of a marshy pool, and further still, in a woody swamp, stood three little blue herons, one of them in white plumage. I should have been gladder for a sight of the big woodpecker, whose reputed dwelling-place lay not far ahead. But, though I waited and listened, and went through the swamp, and beyond it, I heard no strange shout, nor saw any strange bird…

“This was the place for the ivory-bill, and as at the swamp two days before, so now I stopped and listened, and then stopped and listened again. The Fates were still against me. There was neither woodpecker nor turkey, and I pushed on, mostly through pine woods—full of birds, but nothing new—till I came out at the lake. While I stood looking out over the lake, a pretty sheet of water, surrounded mostly by cypress woods, but disfigured for the present by the doings of lumbermen. But, not to give up the ivory-bill too easily,—and because I must walk somewhere…”


Torrey, Bradford. A Florida Sketch-Book. 1895. Lit2Go Edition.  <https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/130/a-florida-sketch-book/&gt;. Chapter 10.

iNaturalist observation: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/58533015

3 Comments

  1. I enjoyed the historical comments you shared from the late 1800’s naturalist on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

    Every time I cross the Cache River going either way on I-40 in Arkansas, I think about this bird and the sighting in late April of 2004 and I can’t help it, but I still retain hope for this amazing bird and that it may still persist out there somewhere.

    Thank you for sharing this piece of history!

    Liked by 1 person

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