Friday, March 6, 2009


A continuing study in animals lost forever, due to human causes or within the historical memory of current humans. This post is dedicated to Wolf.

The Dodo
(Raphus cucullatus)

There really is no more emblematic a case of extinction than the Dodo. This now famous extinct bird was found on the African island of Mauritius, until over-hunting nest predation by introduced dogs, rats, and other animals introduced from Europe wiped them from existence. The date of extinction is debatable, but the last reasonable sighting of the bird was in 1693 (only 112 years after the 1st Europeans saw the birds).

This creature was a classic example of island isolation leading to form and habit that would lend the species to easy exploitation once humans (as was often the case, Europeans) and other outside species showed up.

The birds had evolved on an island without large predators. They were relatively slow, flightless, lacked fear of humans and other animals, and nested in easily found nests on the ground.

Although the Dodo is often depicted as stupid, fat, and sluggish, this is a misrepresentation. Most of the illustrations of the bird showing them as fat are of overfed captive birds, wild birds were more fit. They were also fairly active for their size, and no more or less intelligent than closely related birds.

The Dodo was a large flightless relative of pigeons and doves, and probably evolved from large flight capable doves from either the Indian Subcontinent or SE Asia. They remained in Mauritius undisturbed by permanent human settlement until the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th Century.

Who needs to be that fast and agile, when you eat fruit that falls to the ground and have no predators. Flightlessness and large size is a recurring theme for birds that evolve on islands without large mammalian predators.

The Walghvogel (Wallowing Bird) , as the Dutch originally called it, stood up to a meter tall and could weigh about 50 lbs.

Though their meat was not considered very palatable, they were easily overtaken and killed, and so they were, in great numbers by sailors and settlers. The variety of human introduced animals that plagued them were dogs, cats, rats, pigs, and even monkeys. They didn't stand a chance.

There is somewhat of a debate over the origin of the name, Dodo... ranging from several Dutch terms, a Portuguese term for "fool", and the noise the bird made (a "doo-doooo" pigeon like coo).

Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)

Is it extinct? Though the bird was last conclusively seen in Louisiana in 1944, many sightings, possibly credible and not, have been made up to the present time. This is the bird, that won't die, at least not in people's imaginations. There are credible and believable accounts of the bird appearing up until 1972, but the trail had gone cold after that... and it was assumed they were gone. In 2004, however, photos of a large woodpecker resembling an Ivory-billed was taken in an Arkansas swamp, instigating an intense scientific search, which so far has yet to produce conclusive evidence that Ivory Bills still live.

The birds used to range widely through the deep forests of the American Southeast, preferring swampy hardwood and pine forests. The extensive deforestation of this area was the major cause of their decline and possible extinction.

A pair works together to feed the young in their nest cavity in a Louisiana forest in the 1930's.

Many ornithologists (scientists who study birds) have been hunting for the possibly extant birds for decades.

The bird closely resembles the not extincted Pileated Woodpecker, but has a whitish bill, white wing edges, and the females have all black and white heads. The general similarity in appearance though, has lead to doubts about most sightings since 1944.

Many sightings of the bird believed to be extinct have been made over the decades by professionals and enthusiasts alike. When driving through an area of forest near the Pearl River in Mississippi in 1998, I saw a bird that greatly matched the description of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker... in fairly poor light and of course without any photo documentation.

Several grainy photos and suggestive, but not clearly conclusive call recordings, were made of the bird in 2004-2005 in an Arkansas swamp. This has lead to an extensive hunt by the National Audubon Society, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and governmental agencies for the bird in that area. So far, it has yet to come up with clear photos, indisputable recordings, or a specimen, although several convincing (to some) grainy photos and recordings have been made.

These loud and quite visible birds were rare, due to habitat loss and degradation, by the early 1900s. After the end of the American Civil War, the forests of the Southeast were logged heavily up until the present time. It's safe to say that we have probably lost 90 percent of the Southeastern forests.

This classic print from John James Audubon shows the male (red crest) and the female (black crest) together.

The hunt for the birds continues in earnest in the swamps of Arkansas. There really is a massive amount of information and evidence, and the best compilation of information on the undertaking is found here... The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (who are decidedly convinced that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still live).

No comments: