Birds: The Ivory-billed Woodpecker


IN size, though hardly in beauty, this is indeed the prince of Woodpeckers, the largest of our North American species. Its length ranges from nineteen to twenty-one inches in length. This bird is found in Western Mexico, north along the Sierra Madre, and probably, according to Davie, has not yet been observed within the limits of the United States.

The Ivory-billed is now rare, and is apparently restricted to the extreme southern states, especially those bordering the Gulf of Mexico. It is of a wild and wary disposition, making its home in the dark, swampy woodlands. The dense cypress swamps of Florida are one of its favorite haunts.

The nest of the Ivory-bill is excavated in a tree, about forty feet from the ground, the cavity often being nearly two feet in depth. Three or more eggs are laid.

This bird does not remain long in one place, and during the day ranges over an extended territory. Its call is a high, rather nasal, yap-yap-yap, sounding in the distance like the note of a penny trumpet.

To use the language of Chapman, whose “Handbook” is a mine of ornithological knowledge, Woodpeckers are rather solitary birds, but are sometimes found associated in scattered companies during their migrations. Above all other birds, they are especially adapted to creep or climb. The peculiar structure of the foot, with its two toes directed forward and two backward, except in one genus, the Three-toed (which will appear in the April number of BIRDS), assists them in clinging to an upright surface, while the pointed, stiffened tail feathers serve as a prop when the bird is resting. The stout, chisel-like bill is used to cut away wood and expose the hiding places of grubs, etc., when the long, distensible tongue, with its horny, spear-like tip is thrust in, the food impaled and drawn out.

All Woodpeckers are of value to the farmer. It has been shown that two-thirds to three-fourths of their food consists of insects, chiefly noxious. Wood-boring beetles, both adults and larvae, are conspicuous, and with them are associated many caterpillars, mostly species that burrow into trees. Next in importance are the ants that live in decaying wood, all of which are sought by Woodpeckers and eaten in great quantities. Many ants are particularly harmful to timber, for if they find a small spot of decay in the vacant burrow of some wood-borers, they enlarge the hole, and as their colony is always on the increase, continue to eat away the wood until the whole trunk is honeycombed. Moreover, these insects are not accessible to other birds, and could pursue their career of destruction unmolested were it not that the Woodpeckers, with beaks and tongues especially fitted for such work, dig out and devour them. It is thus evident that the Woodpeckers are great conservators of forests. To them, more than to any other agency, we owe the preservation of timber from hordes of destructive insects.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, living his almost solitary life in the vast and nearly impenetrable cypress swamps, at a height of forty and fifty feet from the ground, is rarely seen by man. The specimens we present in BIRDS are so nearly life-like that our readers need only imagine themselves in the dense forest of cypress to realize a very natural scene.