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Saturday, April 30, 2005

The return of two great Americans 

This week marked the public return of two great American species, the ivory-billed woodpecker, last seen in 1944, and the American chestnut, once America's iconic tree.

The discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, thought extinct for at least fifty years, is astonishing, "the equivalent of Elvis being found alive and kicking" for ornithologists. The bird has been seen and definitively identified in the cypress and tupelo swamp of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge of eastern Arkansas. Known as the "Lord God bird" for the oath that is breathed by those who have seen its majesty,
[t]he ivory-bill has had an awesome hold on people's imaginations, to the immense benefit of the environment. In the 1970's, after an Audubon official reported merely hearing the bird in a South Carolina swamp, the state spared 10,000 acres from clear-cutting.

And it is no surprise:
Ivory-billed woodpecker

The story of woodpecker's rediscovery is dramatic.
With its 30-inch wingspan and formidable bill, its sharp black and white coloring, and the male's carmine crest, the ivory bill was the largest of American woodpeckers, described by John James Audubon as "this great chieftain of the woodpecker tribe."

Once a dominant creature of great Southern hardwood forest, its numbers dwindled as logging increased. The woodpecker inspired one of the first conservation efforts in the nation's history, but its seeming failure turned the ivory bill into a symbol of loss. The last documented sighting was in Louisiana in 1944.

But the ivory bill lived on as a kind of ghost in rumor and in numerous possible sightings. Despite lengthy expeditions, no sighting was confirmed, until Feb. 11, 2004.

On that date Gene M. Sparling III sighted a large woodpecker with a red crest in the Cache River refuge. Tim W. Gallagher at the Cornell Lab saw the report from Mr. Sparling on a Web site where he was describing a kayak trip.

Within two weeks Mr. Gallagher and Bobby R. Harrison of and Bobby R. Harrison of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., were in a canoe in the refuge, with Mr. Sparling guiding them.

Mr. Gallagher said he had expected to camp out for a week, but after one night out, on Feb. 27, he and Mr. Harrison were paddling up a bayou bounded on both sides by cypress and tupelo when they saw a very large woodpecker fly in front of their canoe.

When they wrote down their notes independently and compared them, Mr. Gallagher said, Mr. Harrison was struck by the reality of the discovery and began sobbing, repeating, "I saw an ivory bill."

Mr. Gallagher felt the same. "I couldn't speak," he said.

There's a brief and blurry video of a sighting here.

The greatest American woodpecker has a shot at recovery. Ornithologists confirmed the sighting more than a year ago, but the scientists, conservation groups and government agencies involved "kept the discovery secret for more than a year, while they worked to confirm the discovery and protect the bird's territory." The Nature Conservancy and other groups have bought up land around the existing wildlife refuge to improve the bird's chances.

Since I generally support the deployment of sneakiness, deception and secrecy in the national interest, I am very happy that the government and the conservation groups were able to keep this secret long enough to buy up land around the refuge under, er, false pretenses. One can only wonder, though, that The New York Times has not denounced this clear conspiracy to deprive the public of its "right to know." I suppose that we should be happy that the mainstream media abandoned its commitment to absolute transparency, even if it was only because it happened to agree that the government's deception would benefit a noble objective. This case is evidence, though, that the mainstream media's attacks on governmental secrecy relate more to their political inclinations than they care to admit.

The return of the American chestnut tree is less surprising, but no less satisfying. President Bush planted a hybrid American chestnut tree on the White House lawn this week. The planting marks the symbolic return of the greatest American tree, which had once dominated the virgin forests of America's eastern mountains only to be wiped out by an invasive Japanese fungus in the first half of the twentieth century.

The American Chestnut Foundation web site is a wonderful place to learn about this awesome tree, its destruction during the childhood of our grandparents, and the possibilities for its return.

The American chestnut tree once dominated America's eastern forests before succumbing to chestnut blight. An estimated four billion chestnut trees grew over this range -- more than twice the total population of humans on the planet at the time.

Chestnut range

The Foundation's description of the tree and its significance says it all:
In the heart of its range only a few generations ago, a count of trees would have turned up one chestnut for every four oaks, birches, maples and other hardwoods. Many of the dry ridgetops of the central Appalachians were so thoroughly crowded with chestnut that, in early summer, when their canopies were filled with creamy-white flowers, the mountains appeared snow-capped.

And the trees could be giants. In virgin forests throughout their range, mature chestnuts averaged up to five feet in diameter and up to one hundred feet tall. Many specimens of eight to ten feet in diameter were recorded, and there were rumors of trees bigger still.

Chestnut trunk
Native wildlife from birds to bears, squirrels to deer, depended on the tree's abundant crops of nutritious nuts. And chestnut was a central part of eastern rural economies. As winter came on, attics were often stacked to the rafters with flour bags full of the glossy, dark brown nuts. Springhouses and smokehouses were hung with hams and other products from livestock that had fattened on the harvest gleanings. And what wasn't consumed was sold.

Chestnut was an important cash crop for many Appalachian families. As year-end holidays approached, nuts by the railroad car-full were shipped to New York, Philadelphia and other cities where street vendors sold them fresh roasted.

The tree was one of the best for timber. It grew straight and often branch-free for 50 feet. Loggers tell of loading entire railroad cars with boards cut from just one tree. Straight-grained, lighter in weight than oak and more easily worked, chestnut was as rot resistant as redwood. It was used for virtually everything - telegraph poles, railroad ties, shingles, paneling, fine furniture, musical instruments, even pulp and plywood.

The new chestnut on the White House lawn is the product of the American Chestnut Foundation's breeding program, which has bred blight-resistant Chinese chestnut trees into the American chestnut line. The goal has been to create a tree that is more than 93% American chestnut, but which retains the Chinese genes that protect the tree against the Asian blight.
Chestnut blight was first introduced to North America in 1904. Like many other pest introductions, it quickly spread into its new - and defenseless - host population. American chestnut trees had evolved in the absence of chestnut blight, and our native species lacked entirely the genetic material to protect it from the fungus.

In Asia, however, where the pathogen originated, most native chestnut species and particularly Chinese chestnut are well defended against the blight. Over the course of their millennia of coexistence with the fungus, Chinese chestnut trees acquired the genetic material that confers resistance. Blighted North American chestnut species die, while blighted Chinese chestnuts suffer only cosmetic damage. Since all chestnut species can be crossed with relative ease, Chinese chestnut offers a potential solution to the American tree's susceptibility to chestnut blight.

But Chinese chestnut lacks many of the characteristics of the American. Most obvious is stature: the Chinese species is low-growing and spreading, much like an old apple tree - an American chestnut can grow straight and strong to a hundred feet or more. This habit of growth combined with the quality of wood makes the American a dominant forest tree species.

Less obvious is the role the American chestnut played in its native forests. The blight is a very recent introduction to the chestnut ecosystem. In those thousands of years preceding the blight's arrival, an enormously complex set of relationships evolved which tied the chestnut to innumerable bird, mammal, and insect species and other organisms, as well as to rocks, water, soils and fires. Essentially, chestnut was tied to the very shape of the hills and mountains on which the trees were found. This history of co-evolution on the North American continent is carried in the genetic material only of the American, not the Chinese chestnut.

The goal of TACF's breeding program is therefore two-fold: to introduce into the American chestnut the genetic material responsible for the blight resistance of the Chinese tree, and at the same time, preserve in every other way the genetic heritage of the American species.

Blight-resistant American chestnut seedlings will be available for test plantings in forests next year, with wider distribution in the coming decade. If that happens, your grandchildren may one day walk through eastern forests that look like those your grandparents would have known.

UPDATE: Dr. Sandra L. Anagnostakis of the Department of Plant Pathology and Ecology at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station has published a very interesting history of the invasion of chestnut blight in 1904 and the years following. Good. We should never forget that four billion trees died because Americans did not know that it was dangerous to import alien plants.

13 Comments:

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Apr 30, 10:17:00 AM:

Great post! As one who "once upon a time" wanted to be a professional ornithologist, I am thrilled to see that the Ivory Billed Woodpecker is back. When I was in forestry school at Duke in the early 80s, we got a good laugh when the Army Corps put a picture of the IBW on its promo materials for a new dam south of Chapel Hill. "How dumb can they be?" we thought. And surely, it was a mistake then. Or perhaps they were just anticipating this find?

Nancy  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Apr 30, 10:21:00 AM:

The Army Corps of Engineers, circa 1980, wasn't smart enough to anticipate this find, sorry to say.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Apr 30, 11:05:00 AM:

I love this post. Thank you so much.

The American Chestnut's evolution without the blight to challenge its dominance of the forest called to mind the American Mainstream Media's evolution without the blogosphere to challenge its dominance of the news business:

Bloggers are "cracking, popping, drilling and peeling their victims open"

Unless the MSM gets some new genes -- perhaps the integration of blogs into its own operations that seems to be underway -- it will go the way of the American Chestnut in the 20's.

Sissy  

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By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Apr 30, 05:41:00 PM:

Sigh...  

By Anonymous Carl in N.H., at Sat Apr 30, 09:46:00 PM:

Actually, the original chestnuts live on. I can walk through my woods and see plenty of them, at about the ratio to other hardwoods that the article describes.

Unfortunately, due to the blight, they don't grow very many years before they die; but by then new shoots are already coming from the same stumps.

I dream of a time when we have some cheap and simple-to-administer treatment for the fungus; we have rootstock in place and ready to go.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Apr 30, 10:38:00 PM:

They do live on, but the really big ones that dominated the forest 100 years ago are largely gone. There are still uninfected stands in random places (I think there is one in Wisconsin), and you can buy American chestnut seedlings. As for a cure, I think that hope is slim. That is why the current strategy of breeding in the right genes from Asian chestnuts is apparently the main strategy.  

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