Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds

Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds

by B.J. Hollars


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803296428
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 02/01/2017
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 836,443
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 3.40(d)

About the Author

B.J. Hollars is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He is the author of numerous books, including This Is Only a Test, From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us about Life, Death, and Being Human (Nebraska, 2015), and Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America

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Flock Together

A Love Affair with Extinct Birds

By B.J. Hollars


Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9656-5


The Resurrection of the Lord God Bird

Nature is little concerned with the fate of the individual, but there is no greater tragedy in the scheme of things than the extinction of a species.

— Don Eckelberry, "Search for the Rare Ivorybill," 1961

Once upon a time there lived a bird and then that bird stopped living.

In fact, all of those birds stopped living. They were here, then they weren't, and then, one day many years later, they were believed to be here again.

Which concludes the abridged version of the life and times of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a creature whose flirtations with extinction have left more than a few birding guides in flux.

Do we include it? Do we not include it? the editors wonder, though most of them often do. Or at least they offer some token mention of the bird, even if that mention generally includes the phrase "thought-to-be" or "most likely" followed by the word "extinct."

Like so many others, my introduction to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker occurred in the aftermath of its alleged rediscovery in an Arkansas swamp in 2004–5. Prior to that, I knew it only as the one that got away: the winged creature in the photograph, the skin in the drawer, the painting in the Audubon book. In my mind it was always a lifeless thing, some relic from a distant past. Though in truth, the Ivorybills' presence is hardly distant, and there are, at least conceivably, folks still alive today for whom the memory of the bird remains fresh.

It is, after all, a memorable bird. I refer you to the work of British-born naturalist Mark Catesby, who traveled to America both in 1712 and in 1722, committing several years to documenting the country's flora and fauna. In the book that resulted — The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands — Catesby dedicates a full page to the Ivory-bill, which he refers to as "the Largest White-bill Woodpecker." His description notes the bird's weight ("twenty ounces"), its bill ("white as ivory"), and its general coloring (mostly black, a bit of white, as well as the male's trademark "large peaked crest of scarlet feathers").

Catesby's description is my scholarly entry point into the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, though of more interest to me is his accompanying sketch, perhaps the world's first visual depiction of the bird.

There he is gripping tight to the bark of a willow oak, his beak perpetually frozen, forever preparing for the knock. His eye is a trifecta of concentric circles: the yellow sclera circling the black iris circling the white pupil. And of course there is the scarlet torch atop his head, confirmation of his maleness.

Over half a century later, naturalist Alexander Wilson further contributed to our current understanding of the memorable bird. In addition to his talents as a naturalist and illustrator, the Scottish-born Wilson was a poet, too, proof of which is confirmed in his vaunted descriptions of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which he deemed the "chief of his tribe" and the "head of the whole class of Woodpeckers." Wilson's unbridled enthusiasm for the Ivory-bill continues for several pages throughout his book, whose unwieldy title, American Ornithology; or, The Natural History of the Birds of the United States: Illustrated with Plates, Engraved and Coloured from Original Drawings Taken from Nature, seems to have adopted the form of the epic rather than the haiku.

Yet the persevering reader is rewarded with far more succinct descriptions of the birds themselves, many of which still contribute to our modern understanding of species' behaviors. This is especially true of the Ivory-bill, which Wilson encountered firsthand in the winter of 1809.

On that fateful day as he roamed the North Carolina forests in search of birds, he spotted a young male perched in a tree. Since he had yet to sketch this particular species, he acted as any nineteenth-century naturalist might — by lifting his gun and firing. For sketching purposes, he hoped to acquire his specimen mostly intact, though in fact did one better by acquiring him mostly alive as well.

Who can say what inspired what happened next, why a man known to wear a satchel of dead birds refused, in this instance, to finish the job.

Perhaps he was smitten by the bird's "superb carmine crest" or his "bill of polished ivory." Or perhaps he'd simply grown soft for the species he believed "impress[ed] on the mind of the examiner the most reverential ideas of the Creator."

High praise, indeed, from a man who had aimed to kill.

Though kill he could not, and instead only managed to graze the bird's wing with his bullet.

Wilson paid a price for his poor marksmanship and, upon retrieving the injured bird, was forced to endure an incessant squall "exactly resembling the violent crying of a young child."

So exact was his description that upon entering an inn in nearby Wilmington, the straight-faced landlord inquired as to whether Wilson and his "baby" desired a room for the night.

The bird's convincing impression had drawn a crowd, at which point Wilson pulled back a sheet to reveal the true source of the wailing. The screeching bird was an unexpected spectacle, and as the crowd chuckled, Wilson and his captive started up the stairs to their room. Underestimating the bird's determination to escape, Wilson momentarily left him unattended, and upon his return within an hour's time, spotted the bird pecking wildly at the wall, shedding the plaster like bark.

His escape plan foiled, the bird cried out, a sound Wilson translated as "grief."

Round two, though this time, Wilson got the better of the bird by tying a string around the creature's leg and cinching him to the table. Satisfied, Wilson set off again — this time in search of food for his new pet — though upon returning a second time, he witnessed even more havoc than before.

"As I reascended the stairs," Wilson remembered, "I heard him again hard at work, and on entering had the mortification to perceive that he had almost entirely ruined the mahogany table to which he was fastened, and on which he had wreaked his whole vengeance."

Wilson had to hand it to him — the bird had pluck — though his admiration was hardly mutual.

As he took to his sketchbook, the difficulty of his latest artistic endeavor began to set in: this was no still life with woodpecker, quite the opposite.

"While engaged in taking the drawing," Wilson wrote, "he cut me severely in several places."

Yet the bird's remarkable fight only further enhanced Wilson's admiration for him.

The creature "displayed such a noble and unconquerable spirit," Wilson remarked, "that I was frequently tempted to restore him to his native woods."

Tempted, though not convinced to act on it.

Instead, he held the bird captive for three days while perfecting his sketch, and then, once the bird's hunger strike got the better of him, Wilson "witnessed his death with regret."

Upon first reaching this place in Wilson's narrative, I shuddered and refused to read on.

I, too, found myself regretting that Ivory-bill's death, not because the bird was a rarity then, but because such a noble bird surely deserved to die with a bit more dignity.

Or at least not tethered to a table, his world just a windowpane away.

The only silver lining comes from my imaginings; a scene in which a tongue-tied Wilson explains to the landlord how his "baby" left the room in disarray.

That's one guy, I think contemptuously, who's not getting his deposit back.

If you're dead set on seeing an Ivory-bill, might I suggest you settle for seeing a dead one? Your odds of success are much higher, particularly given that the number of skins preserved in museums far surpasses the Ivory-bills in the trees.

Or, if you'd rather save yourself a trip, you can always limit your search to a search engine, a strategy that not only allows you to research from the comfort of your armchair but also provides the opportunity for digitized comparison between the Ivory-bill and its commonplace cousin, the Pileated Woodpecker.

At first glance, the two species appear all but indistinguishable, their similarities in size and coloring having caused more than a few misidentifications over the years. The Pileated is the Ivory-bill's spoiler, the avian world's equivalent of the man in the Bigfoot suit. I imagine that every time a member of the Ivory-bill faithful spots a Pileated, his heart begins to race. How could it not, given the birds' many similarities? Though of course they're not identical, and once the spotter's heart rate returns to normal levels, he would be best served to take a good hard look at the bird in question's underwing patterns. In this way, his determination can be as simple as black or white — a black trailing edge of feathers points to a Pileated, whereas a white trailing edge gives credence to an Ivory-bill.

Or one can take the Occam's Razor approach: If it looks like an Ivorybill and it sounds like an Ivory-bill, chances are it's still probably a Pileated.

I don't mean to be glib, but there's simply no getting around it.

According to a 2012 report in Conservation Biology, the chance that the Ivory-bill has endured is 0.0064 percent, which means the odds of seeing one, as BirdWatching's Matt Mendenhall writes, are about 1 in 15,625. To put that in perspective, you're about five times more likely to get struck by lightning than spot this particular bird.

(And with my luck, I'd probably get struck by lightning while unsuccessfully searching for an Ivory-bill.)

Which is why I encourage you, dear reader, to take the safer approach, one in which the odds are in your favor. Make do with a study skin, or an artist's depiction — both of which are better than nothing, and in the latter case, far better than nothing: the birds forever captured on canvas at the climax of their glory.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the bird's existence, one thing remains clear: what we lack in living Ivory-bills, we more than make up for with their portraiture. John James Audubon famously painted the species, but so too did a host of other wildlife artists — Larry Chandler, Roger Tory Peterson, and Don Eckelberry, among others. Taken together, their portraits of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker provide us with an array of visual representations of the bird.

Of them, I'm most entranced by the depiction offered by the aforementioned Alexander Wilson — not exactly a deadeye with a gun, but he inarguably had an eye for art. Though admittedly, I appreciate his depiction not for any technical reasons, but because when I stare at that bird's portrait, I'm reminded of that creature's tragic tale. Specifically, that the bird Wilson preserved so well on the page he killed so poorly in life, forcing that injured animal to subsist for three days before at last succumbing to starvation.

Upon staring at the print, I can't shake the jarring disconnect between what I see and what I know to be true. For me, the version of the Ivorybill Wilson presents seems wholly inauthentic; a version of a bird clinging to a branch, when in fact, at the time he was sketched, all that bird clung to was life.

A more accurate depiction might have revealed the remnants of the mahogany table to which he was chained, his feathers half covered in the dust of freshly pecked plaster. It might also have shown the extent of his bodily injuries, some hint of the frantic desperation in his final moments. Instead, Wilson gives us a bird on a branch, and directly above it, a zoomed headshot of the bird from the chest up.

This is the classic version, the neutered version, the fictional version, too.

Some nights when I hear a Pileated knocking on my backyard pines, my mind leaps to that room in that inn in Wilmington, to that injured bird tethered like a broken-tailed kite, kicking into the stale air while his captor hushed him, soothed him, and sketched him as fast as he could.

I'm hardly the first to romanticize the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Even Wilson — who let one die on his watch — praised the creature for his "dignity," his "perseverance," his "melancholy cries." Perhaps we expect nothing less from a poet turned birder, though many other naturalists and ornithologists have been equally generous in their descriptions of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Even its nickname — the Lord God Bird — is an indication of our reverence for it; the moniker is said to have originated due to the regularity with which the phrase "Lord God!" escaped the mouths of those lucky enough to glimpse one in the wild.

Yet over the past seventy years, few have had the opportunity to utter those words for that reason. Which is not to say that nobody has. Part of the mythos of the Lord God Bird is that it refuses to — in the words of another poet, Dylan Thomas — "go gentle into that good night."

Rather, it seems to subscribe to a whack-a-mole existence within the birding community: there one moment, gone the next, all while observers are left wondering what they've seen. Just when people begin to think it's gone for good, it returns again, taking a cue from the phoenix and rising once more from the ash.

Even today, when entering the swamps and bogs of the southern coast, some swear they can still hear it.

Not just the trumpeting kent-kent call of the Ivory-bill, but its human accompaniment:

Lord God, Lord God, Lord God ...

Ornithologists speak often of the "spark bird," the one that — through its beauty or grace or other intangible quality — "sparks" one's lifetime interest in birds. It's the one that reels us in, the one that reawakens our childlike wonder, reminding us that birds are everywhere if we only bother to look.

Except for my own unconventional spark bird, whose spark — as we've already discussed — is more likely to come in the form of a lightning strike.

Fortunately for me, my quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker begins far from the overcast skies of a swamp. Instead, it begins in my fourth-floor office at the Wisconsin university where I work. There, in the predawn hours before the trill of college students, I crack open ornithologist James T. Tanner's 1942 seminal work, the eponymously titled The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and soon find myself highlighting every other word.

My first impression is that Tanner seems a bit of an odd bird himself, though only because I know few twenty-two-year-olds so committed to a cause. Then again, few twenty-two-year-olds have the chance to study a species so close to extinction, to dedicate a combined twenty-one months to self-imposed exile in an effort to save a bird on the brink. Which is precisely what Tanner did while completing his doctoral work at Cornell University. He was encouraged by his mentor, fellow Ivory-bill scholar Arthur Allen, who saw to it that his protégé received the first Audubon Fellowship, thereby granting Tanner ample time to pursue the research both men cared deeply about — how best to save the swiftly depleting species.

Perhaps no one understood the unique challenges of preserving the Ivory-bills better than Allen. In 1924, upon hearing rumors of multiple sightings in central Florida, Allen and his wife took a road trip south and, with the help of a guide, soon stumbled upon a nesting pair in the throes of their courtship ritual. Allen described the way the birds darted from cypress to pine, how they "called and preened" from their new locale as the dawn broke into day.

"Finally," Allen wrote, "the female climbed up directly below the male and when she approached him closely he bent his head downward and clasped bills with her."

If it was a kiss, then it was a last kiss.

Within hours of the sighting, word of the birds' location had spread, and the pair was soon shot and killed.

The tragic irony, of course, is that the man who likely admired those birds most was now the one with secondhand blood on his hands.

His presence confirmed the birds' extrinsic value, proof to local hunters that if their regional species of woodpecker was good enough for a big-city scientist, surely it was worth the cost of a bullet or two.

Enter James Tanner: Allen's fresh-faced star student, not to mention the Ivory-bills' last, best chance at survival. In the introduction to Tanner's book, Allen praised his pupil for possessing "the qualities necessary for a field ornithologist," including "an ability to rough it and to get along with all types of people in all kinds of situations, a natural adaptability, ingenuity, initiative, originality, and a willingness to work."

From 1937 to 1939, Tanner would make use of all of these skills, combing over forty-five locations from the Santee Bottoms of South Carolina to the Big Thicket of Texas. Despite covering over forty-five thousand miles, his sightings remained limited to a small section of virgin timber in Louisiana's Singer Tract. Tanner — often accompanied by local guide J. J. Kuhn — dedicated months of observation to this locale and was rewarded for it. Though Tanner's sightings were limited to a handful of Ivory-bills, he was fortunate to spot them with some regularity, allowing him to gather enough data to eventually propose a set of recommendations for a conservation program.


Excerpted from Flock Together by B.J. Hollars. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note
Prologue: Dodo Lost
Part I. Glimpsing
1. The Resurrection of the Lord God Bird
2. The Death List
3. The Hermit and the Hawk
Part II. Spotting
4. The Continuing Saga of the Resurrection of the Lord God Bird
5. The Life List
6. The Professor and the Pigeon
Part III. Seeing
7. The Stunning Conclusion of the Continuing Saga of the Resurrection of the Lord God Bird
8. The Christmas Count
9. The Ghost of the Goshawk
Part IV. Knowing
10. Flock Together

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Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
stickerooniDM More than 1 year ago
As the son and brother of avid bird watchers and a weekend watcher myself, this sounded like a really interesting book. A variation on the bird-watching theme ... a search for ... or a 'love affair with' extinct birds sounded like a really fascinating take on the bird-watching craze. The appeal is part bird-watching, of course, but there's also the historical and paleonotological aspects. Author Hollars does a nice job of bringing the extinct birds to life (so to speak), but rather than a love affair with extinct birds, as the sub-title states, Hollars focuses in on just a couple and really, he might have made a better case for a book about his obsession with the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. But one thing that we don't really get is why Hollars has developed this fascination. He admits at the very beginning that he's not a bird watcher. This is disappointing because we've been led to think we're getting a story from a bird watcher with words such as 'flock together,' 'love affair,' and 'birds' in the title. But the key word is 'extinct.' It seems like we shouldn't dislike the book for what it's not, but for the millions of people who enjoy bird-watching, and hence preserving the existing birds for future generations to enjoy, a tale about the extinction of specific species ... from someone who hasn't developed the same appreciation for the living birds ... feels so hypocritical. What experiences have you had that suggest you can now lecture to those who have spent years tracking and searching and enjoying rare birds? When Hollars decides to focus on his obsession with the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker the book becomes clearer and the bird watchers who are reading can begin to understand and see the change in a non-bird-watcher to becoming a fan of birds. It's a different path than most take, but the similarities are there. Hollars writes, when he finally holds a stuffed Ivory-Billed from a museum of natural history: Holding that bird, I’m faced with a complicated feeling—part joy, part grief, part something bordering on the sublime. And it’s my inability to give it a proper name that makes the emotion even more powerful. This is my moment of quiet reckoning, my real-life anagnorisis. I’m in love with a bird, I realize as the camera clicks. But I’m also mourning the bird that I love. And this isn’t just any bird, mind you, but a bird—like so many others—with a backstory. According to the tag wrapped round his leg, this particular specimen was killed on March 13, 1883 near the Wekiva River in central Florida.* And this, is what Hollars has been leading us to. That moment of discovery that there is something special about birds. For Hollars it comes with a bird that it is extinct. For others it might come with the first time they see an Oriole, or the Calliope Hummingbird or some exotic, lost traveler. But every birder recognizes the moment. And while there was a fair amount that was interesting here, the over-all impact of this book doesn't live up to what the title and synopsis suggest. Looking for a good book? Flock Together by B. J. Hollars wants to be a about a love affair with extinct birds, but it doesn't quite manage to get there, though moments of the book shine brightly. I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
brf1948 More than 1 year ago
I received a free electronic copy of this informative memoir from Netgalley, B. J. Hollars and University of Nebraska Press in exchange for an honest review. Thank you all, for sharing your hard work with me. I love that B. J. Hollars is a beginning bird nut - so many of us can relate to that sense of feeling left out of the conversation, the information, the love that is associated with everyone's favorite bird species. We all start that way. Hollars quickly picks up the baton (and the lingo) of experienced birders, however his favorite bird is, and is always going to be, the ivory billed woodpecker, long extinct. As are the Passenger Pigeon. The Carolina Parakeet. The Dodo, the Labrador Duck and the Goshawk. But he also brings to us the success stories - the California Condor, the Sandhill Crane. And as he shares his quest for more information, more photos, more art of these awesome but no more birds, these 'endlings', he shares too the knowledge of many conservationists along the way - Frank Chapman, James Tanner, Aldo Leopold, Bill Schorger, Francis Zirrer, Don Eckelberry, and Steve Betchkal, to name a few. And he gives us an introduction and insight into many museums in the east, Including the Field, and the curators that make them an easily usable resource for all conservationists, professional and amateur alike. And I will find a local Christmas Count to join before next winter rolls around. I'll bet you will, too.