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Ivory-bill Odyssey

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by Pat Leonard

This ivory-bill pair was collected in Florida more than 100 years ago. The mount was donated to the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates by the LeRoy family. Photo by Tim Gallagher, CU 52687.

Ivory-bill Odyssey
By Pat Leonard

This ivory-bill pair has been perched on its tree limb for more than a century—pale bills slightly parted as if frozen in their last breath. Where did these birds come from? Who collected them, stuffed them, and sold them? Were they a mated pair, or were they captured separately? Where has their century-long journey together taken them? The quest to learn more about the birds reveals a period of American history marked by tremendous change—the peaking and waning of activities and attitudes that have led to a new view of the relationship between  man and nature.

Flying Free

Our ivory-bills once flew in the untamed forests and swamps of central Florida, either during the final two decades of the 19th century or the early years of the 20th century. It was a perilous time to be a bird, let alone one as charismatic as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Settlers struggling to survive in raw wilderness viewed the natural world as a fearsome threat and a seemingly-endless resource to be exploited. Birds of all kinds were killed at a mind-boggling rate for personal collections, fashion, and sport. One taxidermy shop in New York reportedly took in 350 to 400 song birds each day just for the millinery trade. Shooters were paid seven or eight cents per bird, good money for the times, especially when they brought in 40 to 50 birds a day. A fresh ivory-bill might earn a hunter as much as five dollars, and could then be sold to a dealer or collector for at least 12 dollars.

Most ivory-bills were collected between 1880 and 1920. About half the known specimens in the world came from Florida. The information attached to these specimens is paltry indeed. Of the 413 birds in the world’s museums, only 21 collectors’ names are listed, accounting for the taking of only 39 birds. It’s unlikely we can ever establish for certain who took this particular ivory-bill pair—whether it was one of the known collectors of the period, an anonymous hunter working on their behalf, or someone else lost to history.

The Craze to Collect

While loss of habitat remains the primary reason for the decline of the ivory-bill, the Victorian collecting craze was an added pressure on rapidly-dwindling populations. The flavor of the times is apparent in the records of known bird collectors like William Earl Dodge Scott. He was a leading ornithologist and skilled taxidermist who collected birds in central Florida where our ivory-bills once lived. Despite life-long lameness, he traveled extensively and spent up to two years in the Florida wilderness studying birds and gathering specimens as curator of the newly-established ornithology collection at Princeton University.

Scott made his first expedition to Florida in 1875 and marveled at all the woodpeckers, noting “…the ivory-bill was by no means rare.” Only a decade later, the species was already in trouble. Towns and hamlets dotted the landscape. Loggers brought down great swaths of forest to feed the building boom and the expansion of the railroads. During his 1886 expedition Scott observed, “The ivory-billed woodpecker was formerly common in the South, but is now rare and very shy.” Other collectors took birds from all parts of Florida. One of Scott’s rivals, Arthur T. Wayne, is “credited” with killing 44 ivory-bills in the region around the Suwannee River between 1892 and 1894. He claimed to have seen more than 200 ivory-bills during the same period.

In addition to institutional collections, private collections of birds and animals exploded in the latter half of the 18th century. Collectors could have anywhere from a few specimens in their “cabinet of curiosities,” to the tens of thousands amassed by well-heeled gentlemen-naturalists like William Brewster. Some of the Florida ivory-bills Wayne collected went into Brewster’s vast private museum which grew to 40,000 specimens, including 61 ivory-bills. That collection now resides in Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Scott wrote of his dismay at the change in the Florida landscape, proclaiming his affection for “…the cypress swamps, gloomy and funereal in appearance, which are the homes of the ivory-billed woodpecker.” Even so, it did not stay his hand on March 17, 1886, when he wrote: “Today I found a nest of ivory-billed woodpeckers, and obtained both parent birds and the single young which was the occupant of the nest.”

It was a different time, a different ethic. Both Scott and Wayne did a great deal to advance ornithological knowledge. The large museum and university specimen collections they supplied remain an invaluable source of information about life on the planet. These collections have taken on even greater importance with advances in DNA technology that allow scientists to recreate the entire family tree for a species.

By whatever means, for whatever reason, our ivory-bill pair’s days of freedom in the cypress swamps of central Florida were cut short like so many others of their kind.

Stuffed and Sold

Some collectors, like Scott, could prepare their own mounts and study skins. Otherwise, taxidermy shops handled the skinning, cleaning, stuffing, and mounting. Until the 1930s, toxic arsenic powder was used to preserve specimens and prevent insect infestation. It was a thriving business, with taxidermists often selling or auctioning the specimens brought to them. Since our ivory-bill pair did not go to a museum collection, it’s possible this is what happened to them next in Florida. There is an outside chance that a careful study of the taxidermy style used in this pair could yield clues to its origin when compared to existing mounts in museums—an arduous task with an uncertain outcome since so few collectors are named. In any case the ivory-bill pair was dead and gone, stuffed and mounted, either waiting for a buyer, or in the possession of an owner in Florida, about to be sold again.

Of Woods and Woodpeckers

Enter a man named William T. Finch. Finch was born in Binghamton, New York, in 1855—growing up during the Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln, and the turbulent years that followed. William’s father ran what was then called an “acid factory,” a profession that William would also pursue for more than 30 years. William was a partner in an acid factory along the New York-Pennsylvania boarder for a few years. Then he moved to Northwood, New York, on the west bank of the West Canada Creek. Today it’s about a 20-minute drive north of Utica, but back then it was mostly wilderness and the same trip took most of a day.

Here, as in the forests of Florida, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, the rush to clear the land was in full swing. As railroads marched in, the wilderness retreated, replaced by lumber mills, grist mills, tanning factories, acid factories, and farms. Acid factories needed virgin timber—lots of it. The factories burned logs slowly in airtight, beehive-shaped enclosures of brick, or in mounds of stacked timber covered with dirt. Pouring water on the smoldering pile produced charcoal, wood alcohol, and acetic acid. It took two and a half tons of charcoal to produce one ton of pig iron. The creosote was used to treat wooden railroad ties. Tanning factories used bark stripped from hemlock trees to dye their skins. Rivers became highways choked with logs floated downstream to supply paper factories. City dwellers flocked to the Adirondacks for health and recreation giving rise to fabled Adirondack guides who made a living taking city “sports” into the woods for hunting and fishing.

When Finch first arrived in Northwood around 1884, he helped run a wood alcohol business started by a Presbyterian minister. Finch ended up buying the plant, expanding it, building houses, a church, and a combination boarding house/store. He became wealthy and owned large tracts of land, with five fish ponds. Finch spent each winter in Florida (Sarasota?) and in the early 1900s he bought the ivory-bill pair and took them back to New York.

There the birds remained, though not without incident. In 1912, the state dammed West Canada Creek to create Hinckley Reservoir—a much-needed water supply for Utica and a way to control water levels in the Erie Canal. The state bought up the land and moved more than 200 buildings. Parts of three villages were flooded by the new reservoir, including Northwood. The state bought Finch’s property, sold the houses and the store back to him, and rolled the buildings to higher ground—all except for the factory. Its 80-foot stack loomed out of the water for years before it collapsed. Locals say you can still see the foundation when the water is low. The acid factories were on the way out anyway, with the development of better methods for smelting iron.

Having been built around the Finch factory, the busy little community of Northwood began to fade away. Finch got into real estate, subdividing his large landholdings and selling lots for summer camps. David Beetle, a reporter from the Utica Daily Press, visited a deserted Northwood in September 1945. He found the 90-year old Finch and his wife Elma still living in an apartment in the big old boarding house. Beetle wrote of the now-defunct store: “’s lined with stuffed (in whole or in part) deer, caribou, alligators, woodpeckers, moose, bob white (sic), partridge, loons, salmon, and what have you. Though no big game hunter, Finch was something of a taxidermy fan.”

Beetle also found Finch preparing for what turned out to be his last trip to Florida. Finch died on May 3, 1946. The ivory-bill pair remained mixed in with the rest of Finch’s silent menagerie in the Northwood store, their home for roughly 40 years. But another change was coming.
A Case of Mistaken Identity

In 1944, Frank LeRoy (Cornell  M.S. ’38) and his wife Jean bought a camp at Little Deer Lake, about two miles north of the Finch house. Finch once owned the property, the focus of his years-long feud with local trapper Burt Conklin. Finch reportedly got dogs, put up fences, and fired birdshot at Conklin, who was incensed after Finch went back on his promise to sell him some of the land.

In 1949, Frank LeRoy bought the ivory-bill pair and some other stuffed animals from Elna Finch for “a few dollars.” They were never told anything about the mount except that it came from central Florida. During their 57 years with the LeRoy family, the birds were thought to be Pileated Woodpeckers.

The pair was kept on a porch at the Little Deer Lake camp until the property was sold again in 1989. In between, the birds did a bit of traveling with the LeRoys, being kept for a time on a screened-in porch in South Carolina. In 2002, Frank and Jean gave the birds to their son and daughter-in-law Larry and Shannon LeRoy, and it was off to another camp, this time in Maine. But when news of the ivory-bill’s rediscovery in Arkansas made news in April 2005, Shannon LeRoy took a closer look. Shannon called the Lab and sent photos. After nearly 60 years of mistaken identity, the ivory-bills were recognized for what they were. Their long odyssey came to a close when the LeRoys donated the birds to the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, housed at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Endings and Beginnings

A lot has changed in the 100-plus years since the ivory-bills were taken from the wild in Florida. The heyday of canals and railroads, luxury camps and acid factories, clear-cutting and bird-collecting are long past. The wild places are a fraction of their former selves and habitat destruction remains the single greatest threat to the survival of many species.

But attitudes toward the environment have also changed, in part because of the excesses of the late 19th, early 20th centuries. In New York, the six-million acres of the Adirondack State Park are designated “forever wild.” In Florida, patches of bottomland forest are being preserved and there are still places an ivory-bill might feel at home. Federal and state laws make it a crime to kill or collect native birds or their feathers. Even tougher laws protect endangered and threatened species. The Bald Eagle has just been taken off the endangered list. Populations of Peregrine Falcon, moose, buffalo, and wolves are taking hold in areas where they have been protected or reintroduced.

This new conservation ethic fuels today’s search for the ivory-bill across the southeast and the push to save the remaining patches of bottomland forest. The debate continues over whether or not a few of these iconic birds could still exist in some remote forest swamp. While the search continues, the end of this story has yet to be written.

Created by ksb6
Last modified 2008-11-11 11:53