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Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

Sunday night should have been worth college credit.

After watching the first installment of “Ken Burns: The Vietnam War” we watched “Ghost Bird," a documentary on the supposed 2005 sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker near Brinkley, Arkansas.

The documentary examined the supposed sighting on the Cache River in Arkansas. It also took a close look at the scientists who cast doubt on the veracity of the sighting. As someone who believes the bird is extinct, I found the documentary even-handed.

In addition to exploring the disputed 2005 sighting, the film presented amazing photos of ivory-billed woodpeckers taken by James T. Tanner in the late 1930s. The last verified sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker was in 1944.

Tanner photographed the birds in an area known as “The Singer Tract," an 81,000-acre parcel of bottomland forest along the Tensas River in Louisiana.

The land was owned by the Singer Corporation, maker of the Singer Sewing Machine. Singer logged the entire tract, using the wood to make cabinets for its sewing machines. That action might have been the last straw for the ivory-bill.

Therein lies the importance of “Ghost Bird.” While focused on the ivory-bill, the documentary forces the viewer to look at the bigger picture. “Ghost Bird” is about more than the plight of one particular species. It starkly makes the point that man can create havoc with the natural world — a lesson the human race never seems to fully comprehend.

Granted, the ivory-billed woodpecker required a specialized habitat. And, granted, its range was limited to the southeastern United States. But, extirpating a species is still a remarkable feat.

But, the ivory-billed woodpecker is hardly unique.

At one time there were billions of passenger pigeons in the United States. Overhunting and deforestation led to the bird’s decline. It is believed the last remaining wild passenger pigeon was shot in 1901.

The last remaining captive passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

The story of the Carolina parakeet is similar. There were probably a couple million parakeets on the continent when European settlers arrived. Deforestation and hunting, as the feathers were prized as adornments for women’s hats, resulted in the last known parakeet being killed in 1878.

Watching the program made me think of the callous approach many Americans take regarding man’s effect on the environment. Yes, the world is big, Mother Nature is resilient, but our country, our earth is finite. Only so much punishment can be absorbed.

There are plenty of more recent reminders of how man can decimate a species.

There are only about 500 whooping cranes in the wild. The prairie chicken population has dwindled drastically. Hunting nearly wiped out the American bison. And, just a few decades ago, the overuse of insecticides had the bald eagle teetering on the edge of extinction.

Fortunately, Americans took action that saved the bison and the bald eagle. The fate of other species still hangs in the balance.

“Ghost Bird” provides the grim reminder that Americans seem to need every decade or so. Man can, and has, wiped out several species, species once so numerous that extinction seemed impossible.

On a brighter note, it also provides a nudge to be pro-active.

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.


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