Wilmington, North CarolinaâFebruary 1809
LEXANDER WILSON CLUCKED HIS HORSE SLOWLY ALONG THE MARGIN OF A SWAMP IN North Carolina. Bending forward in the saddle, he squinted out at the small birds that flitted across the moss-bearded boughs of giant cypress trees, hoping he could get a clear shot without going into the water. When he heard the first call of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, he knew what it was instantly, even though he had never seen one before. Here was the toot of a toy horn everyone had told him to expect, repeated again and again. Then came the two-note
a crack of bone against wood that shot through the swamp. When you hear that, everyone had said, then you'll know you're really in the South.
Wilson's heart must have been racing as he dismounted and crept toward the bird, said to be as big as a rooster, with bold black-and-white plumage and an outsized bill that gleamed in the sun like polished ivory. The power of this bird was legendary. A century before, the British explorer Mark Catesby had stood beneath a tree and watched in awe as an Ivory-bill, digging for insects, ripped away huge sheets of bark, sending down a bushel basket's worth of wood in less than an hour. Even President
Thomas Jefferson had written about “the white-bill woodpecker.” Here was a meeting Wilson had long anticipated.
He moved slowly, for he was a walking powder keg. Wilson kept a loaded pistol in each pocket, a loaded rifle strapped across his shoulder, a pound of gunpowder in a flask, and five pounds of gunpowder on his belt. This was not only for the robbers, panthers, and bears or any hostile Indians he might encounter in his travels. Gunpowder was a tool of his trade, like paint. Wilson was on a mission to paint and describe every single bird species in the new United States of America. Once he was finished, he would compile the portraits and accounts into a set of volumes and sell them. He believed there were enough people who wanted to know about the birds of the new nation to provide him a living. For now, he was asking them to buy subscriptions to his work, to pay him in advance and have faith that he would finish the paintings and mail off the booksâin other words, to invest in
Though he was hardly rich, Wilson was off to a good start, having sold subscriptions to President Jefferson and most members of his cabinet.
Wilson preferred to sketch live birds if he could trap them, but usually he couldn't. So he shot them out of trees and shrubs and marshes, firing off a hailstorm of small steel pellets that struck the birds in a deadly mist. He hoped that no single ball would tear their feathers too badly or mangle their features beyond recognition. He also hoped they wouldn't be disfigured when they fell and struck the ground. He collected the carcasses and skinned them, removing their internal organs so they wouldn't rot, then packed them in salt and stuffed them full of cotton until his journey was over and he would have time to paint them.
When Wilson finally got a clear look at the Ivory-bill, he steadied his shotgun, aimed carefully, and killed the bird cleanly. He fetched it from the base of the tree and placed it in his collection bag. Hours later he brought down another Ivory-bill, and was probably still smiling about his good luck when he came upon yet a third peeling bark from the high branches of an enormous cypress tree. The big male's red crest glowed like a flame in the sunlight.
Again Wilson fired, sending another trophy to the ground. When Wilson got to it, this bird was still moving, having been wounded only slightly in one wing. Delighted, Wilson flung his coat over the woodpecker to calm it down and carried it slowly back
to his horse. As he planted his foot in the stirrup and swung his leg over the saddle, the bird exploded into life with a shriek resembling “the violent crying of a young child.” The horse bolted for the swamp. Wilson seized the reins with one hand and tried to keep hold of the bird with the other, finally calming at least the horse. “It nearly cost me my life,” he later wrote.
“His eyes were piercing, dark and luminous and his nose looked like a beak,” wrote Charles Leslie of his hero Alexander Wilson. Leslie started working for Wilson at the age of seventeen, coloring in the sketches of American birds that Wilson had drawn. “I remember the extreme accuracy of his drawings,” wrote Leslie, “and how carefully he had counted the number of scales on the tiny legs and feet of his subjects.”
Born in Scotland, Wilson became known as the “Father of Ornithology” in the United States after the publication of his nine-volume work American Ornithology. Wilson spent many years traveling on horseback throughout the eastern United States, collecting specimens and painting birds at a time when many of the continent's birds were unknown. He carefully and sometimes beautifully described the range, habitat, and behavior of our birds. A petrel, a plover, a warbler, and even a whole genus of warblers still bear Wilson's name.
The bird shrieked all the way into the town of Wilmington, twelve miles down the road. As the strange trioâfrazzled naturalist, bulging-eyed horse, and wailing woodpeckerâcareened through the streets of Wilmington, startled townspeople rushed to their doors and windows, their faces filled with concern.
Reaching a hotel, Wilson tied his horse and took the bird inside. It was still wailing under his coat as the landlord and curious guests clustered around. Wilson asked for a room for himself and “my baby,” and then, to satisfy the curious, he lifted the
coat from he bird. When the laughter died down, he took the Ivory-bill to his room and left it here, locking the door behind him. Then he went back outside to tend to his horse.
A few minutes later, he turned the key to his door again and pushed it open. The air was thick with dust. Chunks of plaster covered his bed. Anchored to a window frame, near the ceiling, the woodpecker was smashing away at the wall with sideways strokes of its mighty bill. Already it had torn a fifteen-inch-square crater in the wall, and it was, just seconds away from piercing through to the outside and making its escape.
As Wilson lunged for it, the bird snapped its beak and slashed back with dagger-sharp claws. Wilson finally managed to loop a string over one leg. Pulling the bird down, Wilson fastened it to a table and went outside again to catch his breath and try to find some food for the woodpecker. Wilson realized the creature must be starving, but he probably had no idea what he could find in Wilmington that an Ivory-billed Woodpecker would eat. This time, when Wilson returned, he opened the door of his hotel room and found the bird perched atop a pile of mahogany chipsâthe ruins of the hotel's table. The bird puffed up its feathers, swung its head around, and glared at Wilson through a furious yellow eye.
That was enough. Wilson grabbed his sketchboard and began to draw while he still had a room. Whenever he edged too close to the bird, he paid a price in blood. He wrote of the Ivory-bill: “While [I drew him] he cut me severely in several places and, on the whole, displayed such a noble and unconquerable spirit, that I was frequently tempted to restore him to his native woods. He lived with me nearly three days, but refused all sustenance, and I witnessed his death with regret.”
Wilson's Ivory-bill (
upper right and lower middle
) shares the page in his
with two Pileated Woodpeckers and a Red-headed Woodpecker (
Ivory-billed Woodpecker specimens at the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science