Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Lord God Birds in the Scientific Literature

In recent years, Lord God Bird (and, alternatively, Good God Bird) has come to be recognized in popular culture as an accepted colloquial name for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). Curious as to whether there is a historical basis for this close association, I queried SORA (the Searchable Ornithological Research Archive) for “Good God” and “Lord God.” The search yielded eight references that contained one or both of these search terms. These references span the period from 1895 to 1922, and include six papers published in the Auk and two in the Wilson Bulletin.

All eight of the papers note that Lord God or Good God were names applied to the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus).

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is mentioned in two three papers, with Corrington (1922) stating that Lord God (being a corruption of “log-cock“) is “a local vernacular name applied indiscriminately” to both Pileated and Ivory-billed in coastal Mississippi. Corrington’s statement was obviously overlooked by Tanner and Terres, neither of whom list Lord God or Good God as alternative names for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (see here).

Corrington thus appears to offer the only scientific support for the notion that Lord God was an alternative name for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in some portions of its range, but note his admonition (see below) that Lord God, and Good God as well, “is a corruption of ‘Log-cock,’ a designation met with in many portions of the south.” This finding sheds no light on how widespread the application of Lord God or Good God for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker might have been by people throughout the historic range of the woodpecker.

Relevant text from each of the eight papers is provided below in chronological order:
(1) At one point during his traverse of a swamp in southeastern Missouri, Widman (1895) related: “over the slough a large bird darted, apparently a Pileated Woodpecker or Good God, as the people call it there [in Indian Slough]; but did it not show an extraordinary amount of white, almost as much as a Redhead[ed Woodpecker]? Could it be the long sought for Ivorybill? I concluded not to go on, as intended, but to stay in the vicinity and to keep a sharp look-out; possibly I might get another and better chance for identification. I waited [in vain].”

(2) Of the Pileated Woodpecker in Alachua County, Florida, it is said: “The ‘Lord God,’ as he is known in this section, is one of the commonest woodpeckers in the county nesting in the hammocks and cypress swamps in early April.” Of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, it is said: “Very rare. Found one nest in the County that contained young. Fresh eggs about February 15.“ The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is not mentioned (Baynard 1913).

(3) Alternative common names for the Pileated Woodpecker in the “Okefinokee” Swamp are given as ‘Kate,’ ‘Wood Kate,’ ‘Woodcock,’ ‘Good-God Woodpecker,’ and ‘Lord-God Woodpecker.’ No mention is made of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Wright and Harper 1913).

(4) Alternative common names for the Pileated Woodpecker in Autauga and Montgomery counties, Alabama, are given as “Lord-god,” “Woodcock,” and “Indian Hen.” The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is not mentioned (Golsan and Holt 1914).

(5) Local names for the Pileated Woodpecker in Wakulla County, Florida, are given as “Good God and “Wood Cady.” The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is mentioned, but no alternative names are provided for it (Williams 1920).

(6) Of the Pileated Woodpecker in southeastern Arkansas, it is said: “Known locally as ‘Lord God’ and ‘Wood God.’ Said to be common in the cypress swamps.” No mention is made of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Hunt 1921).

(7) “The local vernacular names applied indiscriminately to this species [Pileated Woodpecker] and the Ivory-bill are interesting. The commonest term is “Lord God,” said by some to be in fancied imitation of one of the call notes, but I agree with the explanation of Miss [Josie] Pope [of Biloxi, Mississippi] that it is a corruption of “Log Cock,” a designation met with in many parts of the south. The “Lord God” has in turn suffered corruptions, among them being “Good God” and “Oh My God” (Corrington 1922)

(8) “This bird [the Pileated Woodpecker], often designated by the natives as the ‘Indian Hen,’ is now seldom shot for its plumage, and it has learned to be wary of the man with a gun. We have heard the name ‘Wood-chuck’ applied to it, and even more frequent, both in Alabama and Arkansas, the title, ‘Lord God.’ It is a mighty ‘excavator,’ the entrance to most nests is not only large, but the cavity beneath is deep and very ample.” No mention is made of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Wheeler 1922).

Baynard, Oscar E. 1913. Breeding birds of Alachua County, Florida. Auk 30: 240-247.

Corrington, Julian D. 1922. The winter birds of the Biloxi, Mississippi, region. Auk 39: 530-556.

Golsan, Lewis S., and Ernest G. Holt. 1914. Birds of Autauga and Montgomery counties, Alabama. Auk 31: 212-235.

Hunt, Chreswell J. 1921. Notes on the winter and early spring birds of southeastern Arkansas. Auk 38: 370-381.

Widman, O. 1895. Swainson’s Warbler an inhabitant of the swampy woods of southeastern Missouri. Auk 12: 113-117.

Wheeler, H. E. 1922. Random notes from Arkansas. Wilson Bulletin 34: 221-224.

Williams, John. 1920. Notes on birds of Wakulla County, Florida. Wilson Bulletin 32: 5-12.

Wright, Albert M., and Francis Harper. 1913. A biological reconnaissance of Okefinokee Swamp: the birds. Auk 30: 477-505.

Addendum: Tom Nelson linked to this post at the Ivory-billed Skeptic blog. As a result of that link, the following comments were posted here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting John. Thanks for the good research.

May 31, 2007 9:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really very interesting and complete research. The indiscriminate use of the term for both birds certainly seems to point to confusion between the two species as quite possible, perhaps even regular.

May 31, 2007 11:43 AM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Yes, it does male you wonder if the averge rural resident of the southeastern U.S. routinely recognized Ivory-billed and Pileateds as distinct species, or if they simply lumped the two together as "log cocks" or whatever.

May 31, 2007 12:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really good research, John. I had started to make some modifications to the Wikipedia article on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but do not understand the reference formatting used in the article. (That's my deficiency, not the article's.) So I left a note in the discussion for the article here--read where I start "Gallagher's assignment of folk names..."
My research was much less thorough than yours, but had the same basic result.

May 31, 2007 1:58 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Thanks, Patrick. I appreciate your interest in the rather arcane subject of archaic colloquial bird names, especially as they relate to Ivory-billed and Pileated woodpeckers. I think the confusion is rampant, and not likely to soon be sorted out. Look for my upcoming review of Lord God birds in the popular literature.

May 31, 2007 2:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't want to get into what appears to be the ongoing editing war on Wikipedia, but how about the opening sentence: The Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) is a very large and extremely rare member of the woodpecker family, Picidae; it is officially listed as an endangered species, but by the end of the 20th century had widely been considered extinct.

Wouldn't it be more balanced and accurate to say "extremely rare or extinct?"

The article seems to be heavy on opinion and hope and a little light on balance and supporting evidence. But maybe it's just me!

May 31, 2007 6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

About the Wikipedia article:
I agree with Anonymous above that it is very poor. My main beef with it is that it mostly discusses the "rediscovery" and not the life-history of the bird based on actual studies done when it was known to be extant. There have been numerous edit wars over various statements in the article. It could probably be much improved, but it would take a lot of work and argument with the "IBWO Rediscovery Community", which visits regularly and makes edits based on dubious Internet sources. This illustrates Wikipedia at its worst--articles about controversial topics may end up becoming hash. Ironically, most Wikipedia articles on birds are fine (though many are incomplete), because there is no controversy. Check out Red-cockaded Woodpecker, for instance.

Regarding John's comment:
Yes, it does male you wonder if the averge rural resident of the southeastern U.S. routinely recognized Ivory-billed and Pileateds as distinct species, or if they simply lumped the two together as "log cocks" or whatever.
Yes indeed, and one name Tanner quotes for the IBWO is "Large Logock", I believe. (To differentiate it from the "small Logcock", the Pileated?) It is important to realize that the bird was fairly widespread in colonial times and during Audubon's life (died 1851), it had disappeared from much, if not most, of its range by the 1880's. Jackson summarizes a historical account:
Hasbrouck (1891) summarized our knowledge of the species to 1891, including a detailed map of “present” (1880–1891) and past (prior to 1880) distribution, indicating disappearance of species from interior regions and populations then limited to coastal swamp forests.

The "averge rural resident of the southeastern U.S." has not had a chance to see a living IBWO for 120 years or longer. We are talking, in most cases, about before the Civil War. For four generations or longer, there has been no other "logcock" to confuse--just the Pileated. (One anecdote I read about the IBWO had a Cajun referring to the IBWO as "kent", not "Lord God"--I believe this was in Louisiana about the 1940's--have to find the reference.)

Which leads me to another topic that needs to be discussed in the IBWO "community"--the actual habitat of the bird. Lester Short hypothesized that the IBWO was actually a bird primarily of the mature southern pine forests, largely the huge Longleaf Pines that were gone by 1900 or earlier. (A good read on the decline of Longleaf is Lawrence Earley's Looking for Longleaf.) I keep hearing people talk about "conserving IBWO habitat", but I'm not sure we even know what that was! The last populations were in bottomland hardwoods, but those may have been in suboptimal habitat where they could not sustain their population. There's not much about this on-line, and I've only read brief summaries of Short's work--papers are quoted in Jackson's bibliography. Jackson does not discuss this, only says in his section on habitat that "Ivory-billed had once been a bird of uplands, as well as lowlands". In most of its range, "uplands" would have been Longleaf Pine forest. The topic deserves more research--a good project for anyone interested.

June 01, 2007 5:30 AM  
Blogger JS Clark said...

I'm just having a lot of trouble getting from "log cock" to "Lord God", aurally. What kind of accent??

August 26, 2008 1:18 PM  

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