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The Race to Save the Lord God Bird
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The Race to Save the Lord God Bird

4.5 2
by Phillip Hoose

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The tragedy of extinction is explained through the dramatic story of a legendary bird, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and of those who tried to possess it, paint it, shoot it, sell it, and, in a last-ditch effort, save it. A powerful saga that sweeps through two hundred years of history, it introduces artists like John James Audubon, bird collectors like William


The tragedy of extinction is explained through the dramatic story of a legendary bird, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and of those who tried to possess it, paint it, shoot it, sell it, and, in a last-ditch effort, save it. A powerful saga that sweeps through two hundred years of history, it introduces artists like John James Audubon, bird collectors like William Brewster, and finally a new breed of scientist in Cornell's Arthur A. "Doc" Allen and his young ornithology student, James Tanner, whose quest to save the Ivory-bill culminates in one of the first great conservation showdowns in U.S. history, an early round in what is now a worldwide effort to save species. As hope for the Ivory-bill fades in the United States, the bird is last spotted in Cuba in 1987, and Cuban scientists join in the race to save it.

All this, plus Mr. Hoose's wonderful story-telling skills, comes together to give us what David Allen Sibley, author of The Sibley Guide to Birds calls "the most thorough and readable account to date of the personalities, fashions, economics, and politics that combined to bring about the demise of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker."


The Race to Save the Lord God Bird is the winner of the 2005 Boston Globe - Horn Book Award for Nonfiction and the 2005 Bank Street - Flora Stieglitz Award.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"With power and humor, rage and sorrow, the narrative details the demise of the Lord God bird, braiding into its tale the stories of those who came into contact with it, from J.J. Audubon himself to James Tanner...Sidebars add engrossing details, and extensive back matter bespeaks exemplary nonfiction. But it's the author's passion that compels. Outstanding in every way." Starred, Kirkus Reviews

"In a thoroughly researched account based on interviews, primary materials, and published sources, Hoose tells how naturalists...raised, too late, awareness of the Ivory-bill's plight. Illustrated with archival photos and well provided with side bars, "important dates," maps, glossary, and index, this important summary of an environmental tragedy belongs in every library."

The Horn Book

"This meticulously researched labor of love uses drama, suspense, and mystery to tell the story of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker...Hoose skillfully introduces each individual involved through interesting, historically accurate scenes. The author's passion for his subject and high standards for excellence result in readable, compelling nonfiction."

— Starred, School Library Journal

"The combination of the best of storytelling supported by extensive research...a must for any library serving youth or teachers." — VOYA

"A compelling tale...readers will sense the urgency that remains, even if the Ivory-bill is gone." —Publishers Weekly

"Hoose is a gifted storyteller. An engrossing story." — The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

"Fascinating, engrossing." — Book Links

Publishers Weekly
Despite this chronicle's suspenseful title, this particular race seems to be over, and the Ivory-billed woodpecker (whose observers gasped, "Lord God!") appears to have lost. Those who raced to save the Ivory-bill and its Southern U.S. habitat, reports Hoose (We Were There, Too!), were neither as swift nor as wealthy as those who raced to shoot it and turn its preferred sweet-gum trees into lumber. Yet Hoose shares a compelling tale of a species' decline and, in the process, gives a history of ornithology, environmentalism and the U.S. With memorable anecdotes from naturalist writers, he tells how researchers such as John James Audubon shot Ivory-bills for study; later, binoculars, cameras and sound equipment changed scientific methods. Hoose also charts pre-Endangered Species Act collecting, when people responded to a rare bird by killing and stuffing it. In 1924, a pair of Ivory-bills were spotted in Florida, but soon vanished; "[collectors] had asked the county sheriff for a permit to hunt them." Further, Hoose explains how wars and the changing economy brought timber companies and the free labor of German POWs to devastate the Ivory-bills' virgin forests. In restrained language, he tells a tragic tale. His liveliest chapters concern James Tanner, the Ivory-bills' champion, who camped in swamps and climbed giant trees to document a few birds in the 1930s. "Can we get smart enough fast enough to save what remains of our biological heritage?" Hoose asks in conclusion. To him, the Ivory-bill represents no less than wilderness itself; readers will sense the urgency that remains, even if the Ivory-bill is gone. Ages 12-up. (Aug.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
The efforts to save the Ivory-billed Woodpecker from extinction is the primary focus of this book, but the story line has the intrigue of a novel as it moves from nineteenth-century collectors to more modern naturalists who use binoculars, cameras, and sound machines to get permanent records of the bird. The story begins in North Carolina in 1809 with the father of ornithology in the United States, Alexander Wilson. It ends with a major unsuccessful effort to locate the bird in Louisiana in 2002. More than producing a book on a single bird or the conservation ethic, text and photos provide a history of the country from a wilderness with seemingly limitless wildlife to the nation of today's limited resources. It includes the birth of the Audubon Society, the "Plume War," economics of the lumber industry, and recent attempts to preserve habitat. Sidebars and notes provide insight and documentation without detracting from the story line. The combination of the best of storytelling supported by extensive research makes this book valuable for the social sciences as well as for the natural sciences. A wide range of students, even reluctant readers, will be fascinated by the text and photos. This book is certainly unique and a must for any library serving youth or teachers. VOYA CODES: 5Q 4P M J S (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2004, Farrar Straus Giroux, 208p.; Glossary. Index. Illus. Photos. Maps. Source Notes. Chronology., $20. Ages 11 to 18.
—Marilyn Brien
Children's Literature
An informative book that reads like a story, this nonfiction work recounts the human fascination with the giant woodpecker, the Ivory-bill. Once a native of the southern United States and Cuba, the bird was most likely harried by loss of habitat and finally hunted to extinction. Hoose organizes his fascinating account chronologically. Along the way, he gives glimpses of John James Audubon at work, of collectors who shot their specimens to study them, of people using other methods to study birds such as recording or "shooting with a mike" that arose in the 1930s, of Jim Tanner whose deeply informed study of the Ivory-bill lasted for over half a century, other extinctions, and many other aspects of ecology and avian study of the times. Sidebars, such as the bird's many aliases (Log-cock, Pearly Bill, Indian Hen), archival photos (women with feathered hats), and side trips into the symbiotic role of insects and Ivory-bills make readers think about this marvel of nature. Essential back matter includes a chapter-by-chapter narrative of sources that suggest further compelling historical reading, a time line of important dates in the protection of birds, glossary, and an index. There is little hope for another sighting of the Lord God Bird (Hoose hedges slightly until Cuba is open for birders). The author mentions some of the "gifts" the bird left us: much improved recording devices, a model study of a bird and a conservation plan, the rise of the Nature Conservancy and its plan to save wild land, and more awareness of birds. Destined to become a classic in the field, this book is essential reading for any birder and a rousing story for all, even those who thought they weren't much interested.2004, Melanie Kroupa/Farrar Straus Giroux, Ages 12 up.
—Susan Hepler, Ph.D.
School Library Journal
Gr 6 Up-This meticulously researched labor of love uses drama, suspense, and mystery to tell the story of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the first modern endangered species. Its story is also the story of America, its economics and its politics, its settlement and its development, its plume hats and its environmental protection laws. In 1800, the large and impressive woodpecker lived in the southeastern United States, from Texas to the Carolinas and as far north as Indiana. By 1937, it could be found on only one tract of land in northeastern Louisiana. Its last confirmed sighting was in Cuba in 1987. Hoose skillfully introduces each individual involved through interesting, historically accurate scenes. Readers meet John James Audubon as well as less familiar people who played a part in the Ivory-bill story as artists, collectors, ornithologists, scientists, and political activists. Sharp, clear, black-and-white archival photos and reproductions appear throughout. The author's passion for his subject and high standards for excellence result in readable, compelling nonfiction, particularly appealing to young biologists and conservationists.-Laurie von Mehren, Cuyahoga County Public Library, Brecksville, OH Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
Revised and Updated, 10th Anniversary Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
8.50(w) x 9.60(h) x 0.90(d)
1150L (what's this?)
Age Range:
12 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt



Nature does nothing uselessly.


Louisiana State University—February 2002

Dr. James Van Remsen pulls open a wooden drawer and hands me an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It’s dead, of course, one of seven Ivory-bill specimens in a dark room of the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science. It feels light and stiff—more like an object than a creature that once lived and breathed. Its wings are folded tightly in on themselves like an umbrella. The hollow eyes have been stuffed with cotton. The backswept crest of this male is more orange than red now, and the bill has darkened from ivory to tarnished gold. Dangling by a string from one gray ankle is a white tag that says “CAMPEPHILUS PRINCIPALIS—LSUMZ 60803; MALE.”

I raise it up against a fluorescent light to inspect it more closely. Somehow the Ivory-bill looks both prehistoric and futuristic at the same time. The faded red crown of this big male shoots stiffly back like the bony crest of a pterodactyl, the ancient winged reptile. By contrast, other specimens show that the female has a jet-black crown that nods slightly forward and ends in a sharp point. In both sexes, a bold white stripe starts below each ear and snakes down the long neck, zagging below the shoulder and then flaring out into a white saddle that blankets the lower wing.

Any species in nature, from the tiniest insect to the Blue Whale, is a collection of design experiments, field-tested and remodeled again and again over thousands of years. By looking carefully at the way a bird is built and then thinking backward—asking questions like “Why would a wing be so long?” or “Why are its eyes on the sides of the head instead of the front?”—it’s possible to get some sense of how the bird got its food and defended itself, how widely it traveled, and what role it might have had within its ecosystem.

Of course my attention goes first to the amazing bill. It’s not really made of ivory, like an elephant’s tusk, but of bone, covered by a sheath of a special protein called keratin. It’s broad at the base, and rooted deep into the bird’s thick-boned skull to absorb the shock of pounding a tree. Its slitlike nostrils are fringed with hair to keep out sawdust. An Ivory-bill needed this big, stout crowbar of a bill to pry strips of bark off a tree, because its favorite food lay just underneath. The Ivory-bill ate some fruits and berries when they were in season, but mostly it ate grubs—the larvae of beetles. Certain kinds of beetle would attack a dying or injured tree by boring through the bark to lay their eggs, which hatched into stout, wormlike creatures—the grubs. Ivory-bills used their bills to peel the bark away from the tree and get at these fat delicacies—which were then exposed under the bark—like thieves robbing a safe.


Specimen 60803 is nearly two feet long, but even when it was alive and still possessed all its internal organs, it weighed barely a pound. Like most birds, Ivory-bills had to be light so they could fly. Their weight-saving features included the following:

• Thin, hollow bones filled with “struts,” allowing air spaces that provide strength without adding weight.

• No jawbone, no teeth, and no vertebrae in their tails.

• A reproduction system with “external eggs,” which relieves the mother of the weight of a young bird developing within her body.

• Many neck vertebrae make it possible to reach objects with their bills instead of having to use limbs, which would add weight.

• A kite-like skeleton with fewer bones than most mammals have; the bones are fused together, providing support for flight.

As LSU specimen 60803 shows plainly, the bill was far more than just a crowbar. Its tip is a miniature chisel, engineered for the fine work of flicking out and nabbing the startled grubs that tried to squirm away. If they got too far, the Ivory-bill had one more tool to finish the job—a hard-tipped tongue lined with needle-sharp barbs. The tongue was so long that it wrapped around the inside of the bird’s skull and could be zapped out in an instant to spear a fugitive grub.

A woodpecker’s bill has to keep growing constantly throughout its life because it keeps getting worn down by smacking against wood. The same is true of a beaver’s front teeth. However, there is one amazing Ivory-bill specimen in a Cuban museum whose upper bill kept growing for some reason until it curled over the lower bill and continued on in a great arc all the way under its body. This incredible bill made the bird unable to attack trees, but it could still open its lower bill to take food. Its parents kept it alive for more than a year by feeding it termites.

I push back specimen 60803’s tag to examine a foot. Four scaly, dagger-sharp toes are clenched into a tight claw. One toe points downward, a second and third point forward, and the fourth sticks out to the side. Being able to spread out its toes helped this bird attach itself to bark and hitch its way up tree trunks and out along tree limbs. Stiff tail feathers braced it against the trunk and kept it from falling backward as it pounded away. And, as Alexander Wilson found out in his hotel room, those sharp toes could turn into deadly weapons. “When taken by the hand,” wrote Wilson, “they strike with great violence, and inflict very severe wounds with their bill as well as claws, which are extremely sharp and strong.”


While exploring the Galápagos Islands far off the coast of South America, British scientist Charles Darwin (1809–1882) encountered a bizarre assortment of plants and animals, including swimming lizards and flightless birds.

Darwin was fascinated by the fourteen species of finch he saw. Each had a differentshaped beak and a different way of getting food with it. One sipped nectar, another cracked seeds, another scraped small insects off leaves.

Darwin came to believe that each finch species had “evolved” from a small group of birds once blown onto the Galápagos by a storm. These ancestors had landed in a kind of paradise, with no natural enemies. They could multiply until they reached the limit of their food supply. Then they had to find a new way to obtain food, or die. Darwin theorized that finches’ bills were visible records of at least fourteen such changes, or “adaptations.” After many generations, each type had changed so much it could reproduce only with its own kind and became a separate species.

As specimen 60803’s tag says, the Ivory-bill’s scientific name is Campephilus principalis, or “principal lover of caterpillars.” The Ivory-bill is one of eleven species in the genus Campephilus, found mainly in hot, tropical climates. Almost all members of the genus have black-and-white feathering, which helps them blend in with tree bark, and in most species the male has a red crest. All eleven Campephilus woodpeckers rap out the same message, a sharp two-note BAM-bam, with the first note louder than the second, delivered to tell family members where they are or to warn away any creature that might be thinking about invading a feeding or nesting area.


In 1753 Swedish biologist Carl von Linné, known as Linnaeus, developed a system that allowed every species of plant and animal in the world to be identified by its own sequence of Latin names. This enabled people of different languages and regions of the world to talk about the same bird, mammal, reptile, fish, insect, or plant, no matter what they called it locally. This was especially important for a creature like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which was called by dozens of nicknames.

For example, specimen 60803 might have been called a “Kent” or a “Lord God bird” in one part of Louisiana, but something entirely different even a county over. Using Linnaeus’s system, everyone could know this bird by its genus name, Campephilus, and its species name, principalis.

Specimen 60803’s wings also offer clues about its life. Its long, tapered wings and streamlined tail feathers propelled it great distances to search for weakened, dying, grub-infested trees. The Ivory-bill helped regenerate the forest by starting the job of breaking apart and toppling dying trees. The trees in old forests where most Ivory-bills lived had wide-spreading limbs whose summer leaves formed a green shield that blocked sunlight from reaching the ground. The forest was dark underneath these trees. In order for sunlight to reach the ground so that new seedlings could germinate, a tree had to fall and open a hole in the canopy. Ivory-bills stripped the stilltight bark from the dying tree as they searched for grubs. Then smaller woodpeckers, ants, grubs, and other creatures could attack the tree in shifts, weakening it further until it finally fell over.

For thousands and thousands of years, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers had a steady, secure existence. They mated for life, roamed the forest in pairs, and could live to be as old as thirty. Females laid only two or three shiny white eggs at a time—the fewest of any North American woodpecker—but they didn’t need to lay many, since Ivory-bills were big and powerful enough to defend themselves against almost all predators.

I hold 60803 up close to read the rest of the specimen tag: “ROARING BAYOU, FRANKLIN PARISH; 12 JULY 1899; COLLECTED BY GEORGE E. BEYER.” Who was George E. Beyer? Why did he kill and stuff this bird, and how did it end up in the LSU museum? I decide to try to find out. Whoever he was, I suspected that by 1899, when Mr. Beyer met the future specimen 60803, things were changing fast for the Ivory-bill, and not for the better.


George Beyer began each day by waxing the ends of his handlebar mustache to needle-sharp perfection. His appearance was important. Besides being a first-rate biologist, Professor Beyer had a showman’s flair for attracting attention. Once he invited a newspaper reporter to witness as a small rattlesnake bit his pinky finger for several days in a row.

It was his way of testing the theory of inoculation—the notion that a person could build resistance against an infectious substance by injecting small amounts of the substance itself. The reporter relayed the shocking experiment to papers throughout the United States and Germany. Thousands of readers hotly debated whether Professor Beyer was a visionary or a downright fool. He survived, and went on to give packed public lectures on topics such as poisonous snakes, Indian mounds, and yellow fever.

As a boy in his native Germany, George Beyer had become so skilled at museum work that he was sent, at the age of eighteen, to Central America by himself to collect insects, reptiles, and birds for the Dresden Zoological Museum. After a year’s painstaking work, Beyer carefully packed all the labeled specimens into crates and put them aboard a ship bound for Germany. When he learned that everything had been lost in a shipwreck, he couldn’t bring himself to go back home. Instead, he bought a steamship ticket to the United States.


Linnaeus’s framework for classifying and naming plants and animals had seven parts. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, like all animals, is in the kingdom Animalia (about 1.07 million species named so far). Because it has vertebrae—hollow sections of backbone strung like beads onto a nerve cord—the Ivory-bill belongs to the phylum Chordata (about 45,000 named species). So do humans. All of the world’s bird species belong to the class Aves (9,757 species). All woodpeckers and several other bird families are of the order Piciformes (375 species).

Woodpeckers alone belong to the family Picidae (179 species), distinguished from other Piciformes mainly by the arrangement of their toes—two facing forward and two back. The family is divided into 33 woodpecker genera—plural for genus. The Ivory-bill’s genus is Campephilus, whose 11 species tend to be large black-and-white woodpeckers found in warm regions. Finally, the Ivory-bill specifically is identified by its species name, principalis—first among all. So while the Ivory-bill could be introduced at fancy occasions as Animalia Chordata Aves Piciformes Picidae Campephilus principalis, we save our breath and call it by its genus and species name—Campephilus principalis.

Despite his thick German accent, he had no trouble finding work. Taxidermy—preparing specimens—was so important that Beyer’s skills were in hot demand. In 1893 he was hired to build a first-class natural history museum at Tulane University in New Orleans. From then on, George Beyer was always on the lookout for a rare or exotic specimen that would boost the museum’s reputation and pull in visitors.

When Beyer first heard a report in 1899 that there were still Ivory-billed Woodpeckers left in Louisiana, he didn’t believe it. His doubt vanished instantly when, as he wrote, “a gentleman handed me the dried head of a female Ivory-bill … informing me that he could guide me to the spot where he had shot it and several others.”

To bring back the skin of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker! That would fill the museum with visitors and would rank among the crowning achievements of Beyer’s scientific career. Beyer waited until Tulane’s summer break, hired horses and guides, and then set off in July, at the very height of mosquito season. By mid-month the party had hacked and swatted its way into a wilderness swamp in northeast Louisiana that locals called Big Lake. As soon as they broke through a perimeter of thick brush to the cypress-ringed lake, Beyer knew he had struck gold. “We could hear quite frequently the rather plaintiff [sic] but loud cry of the ‘Log-god’ for such the bird is called by those acquainted with it in that section of the state,” he wrote.

Beyer found and killed seven Ivory-billed Woodpeckers during his weeklong expedition. The highlight of his trip arrived when his eyes came to rest on a large rectangular hole near the top of a dead elm tree. Concealed behind a thick growth of poison ivy was a large, freshly cut hole. It was an Ivory-bill’s nest! “There was but one young one about,” Beyer noted, “and it remained in close vicinity of the entrance, notwithstanding that it was almost fully feathered and able to fly. Both parents were still feeding it.”

Beyer shot the entire family, cut down the top of the tree, and made an exhibit of the nest in the Tulane Museum. The Ivory-bill family attracted visitors like a magnet. As he wrote proudly (but incorrectly) to W. D. Rogers, acting president of Tulane, “it is doubtful whether any other institution outside of the U.S. National Museum possesses more than a single specimen of this species. This one group alone as it now stands in the [Tulane] Museum represents easily a value of $250.”

*   *   *

In the 1930s, a few years after George Beyer’s death, the stuffed specimens from his Big Lake trip were transferred from Tulane to the LSU museum. Seventy or so years later I hold the adult male of the family, now LSU specimen number 60803, in my hands as Dr. Remsen waits for me to finish with it. I feel transported for a few moments to the great lost forest over which this stiff, faded object once reigned. This bird heard Red Wolves howl and panthers scream. While the drumbeat of rain pelted the shiny green leaves of its poison ivy curtain, it protected its eggs in a cozy hole high above the ground.

Finally it is time for me to put 60803 back into its case. I’m filled with questions as I think about how the Ivory-bill survived so well for many thousands of years. But then, in the ninety years that passed between 1809, when Alexander Wilson shot his Ivory-bills to paint them, and 1899, when George Beyer shot his to exhibit them in a museum, the Ivory-bill’s world collapsed. What happened? I’m determined to find out. To start, I have to go back to the early 1800s and meet another great painter of birds.

Text copyright © 2014 Phillip Hoose

Meet the Author

Phillip Hoose is an award-winning author of books, essays, stories, songs and articles. Although he first wrote for adults, he turned his attention to children and young adults in part to keep up with his own daughters. His book Claudette Colvin won a National Book Award and was dubbed a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2009. He is also the author of Hey, Little Ant, co-authored by his daughter, Hannah, It’s Our World, Too!, and We Were There, Too!, a National Book Award finalist. He has received a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, a Christopher Award, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, among numerous honors. He was born in South Bend, Indiana, and grew up in the towns of South Bend, Angola, and Speedway, Indiana.  He was educated at Indiana University and the Yale School of Forestry.  He lives in Portland, Maine.

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Race to Save the Lord God Bird 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you think all the "good" things are disappearing here is another one. Just think what we have done in the name of advancement.....
Guest More than 1 year ago
In this brilliant narrative of the process of extinction of the Lord God Bird, we see the history of conservation and realize the impact we have on this fragile world. Both adults and children will find this book fascinating - it reads like a thriller. In the process we see how collectors, fashion, building, etc. impact the environment. I'm a careless consumer, but this book made me really think!