It was with a mixture of joy and sadness that I heard about the Nature Conservancy announcement, verifying the continued existence of the legendary ivory-billed woodpecker in the bottomland forests of eastern Arkansas. How amazing is it that this bird has persisted, in spite of the incredible loss of habitat starting in the 1880s that lead to the extinction of so many species?
Other species were not so lucky. I think of one bird in particular, the only year-round resident parrot of the United States, the Carolina Parakeet. The last known bird died in the Cincinatti Zoo in 1918, near the time the last passenger pigeon also died. Most Americans don't even realize that we had our very own native parrots in the United States - the species has faded from memory just that fast.
When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, the blue whale was also thought to be extinct. But then, in the 1990s, there were sightings once again of the largest mammal that has ever lived. There may now be as many as a few hundred of them in the eastern Pacific. The gray whale, once endangered, is now, at about 18,000 animals, probably at the maximum level that the habitat along the U.S. coast and the Bering Sea can support (though the western Pacific stock, which roams the coast of Siberia, is in deep trouble). These reprieves from extinction, like that of the ivory-bill, are bittersweet, because we remember the species that didn't make it, and really won't be seen again.
And because so many species (spotted owls, anyone? salmon? marbled murrelet?) will surely follow if we can't get our shit together.