Friday, June 01, 2007

Literary Encounters With Lord God Birds and Their Kin

Lord God Bird is a colloquial name that has been widely applied to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) since the ‘rediscovery’ was announced in 2005, even though there is evidence that the name was historically restricted to the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) (see here and here), or, perhaps more likely, applied indiscriminately to both species (see here).

Thanks largely to the magic of's "search inside" feature, which will search the text of selected books for key words or phrases, I was able to locate 28 books that make mention of Lord God birds or woodpeckers, their close kin (Good God birds or woodpeckers and Great God birds or woodpeckers), and more distant relatives (God-a-Mightys and Lord-to-Gods). I searched these books for the appearance of each of these key words or phrases. Each mention of a key word or phrase was considered an "encounter."

From 1938-2000, in 17 books by 13 authors, I found 40 encounters with God-like woodpeckers of various kinds (29 Lord Gods, 6 Lord-to-Gods, 2 Good Gods, 2 Great Gods, and 1 God-a-Mighty). The God birds were identifiable as Pileated Woodpeckers in 26 encounters, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in 5 encounters, and unidentifiable in 9 encounters.

From 2001-2006, in 11 books by 11 authors, I found 38 encounters with God-like woodpeckers of various sorts (30 Lord Gods, 6 Good Gods, 1 Lord-to-God, and 1 Great God). The God birds were identifiable as Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in 28 encounters and Pileated Woodpeckers in 10 encounters.

The shift in the frequency with which Lord God birds and their kin are described as Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (16 percent 1938-2000 versus 74 percent 2000-2006) is statistically significant (Chi-square = 22.5, p<0.001, n=69, df=2).

This shift can be quite clearly attributed to Christopher Cokinos, who invoked the term 15 times in just 57 pages in Hope is the thing with feathers. Other authors (especially Phillip Hoose in his brilliantly titled The race to save the Lord God bird), and particularly the news media, have subsequently picked up on this evocative term and applied it with liberal abandon to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

The 28 books that I searched are listed below in chronological order along with selected text to indicate the context of each usage:

The yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1938; 50th anniversary paperback edition 1998) – 1 encounter:
pp. 207-208: "'The wood-ducks tried to nest there,' he said. 'They’ll see a hole in a tree, and don’t matter do it belong to a Lord God woodpecker or one o’ them big woodpeckers with a ivory bill, or a swarm o’ bees, they’ll take a notion to it and they’ll try to nest in the hole. The bees has done drove these uns out.'"
Go down, Moses, by William Faulkner (1942) – 1 encounter:
p. 202 in the short story The Bear: ". . . he stood against a big gum tree beside a little bayou whose black still water crept without motion out of a cane-brake, across a small clearing and into the cane again, where, invisible, a bird, the big woodpecker called Lord-to-God by negroes, clattered at a dead trunk."
The keepers of the house, by Shirley Ann Grau (1964; reprint edition published 2003 November 11) – 1 encounter:
p. 67: "The swamp all round him burst into activity. Egrets and herons and starlings and robins rose up screeching and frightened. Even the great noisy black bird that people called the Lord God Bird sailed up from the top of a peaked cypress tree."
Love in the ruins: the adventures of a bad Catholic at a time near the end of the world, by Walker Percy (1971 May, paperback edition published 1999 September 1) - 1 encounter:
p. 112: "For him the ivorybill, which the Negroes used to call the Lord-to-God, is the magic bird, the firebird, the sweet bird of youth."
Savannah, by Eugenia Price (1983; paperback edition published1997 April 15) – 1 encounter:
p. 306: "'He’s like a quite handsome bird, actually,' Mark told her [describing the recently-arrived British architect]. 'He has thick red hair that springs up from his high forehead like the crest of that woodpecker Hero calls the Lord God bird.'"
To see your face again, by Eugenia Price (1985; paperback edition published 1997 April 15) – 1 encounter:
p. 263: "On the rising wind, he could hear pounding all the way from the old Cherokee capital of New Echota. He listened more closely. It was either a man hammering or what Rich Joe Vann’s Negro slaves used to call the Lord God Bird, the huge woodpecker with a flaming crest that could hammer at a dead tree so that it imitated almost exactly the sound of a man pounding a nail."
Bright captivity, by Eugenia Price (1991; paperback edition published 1996 July 15) - 14 encounters:
p. 3: "She came awake so fast she thought it must be the comical, huge red-crested woodpecker, which Papa's people called the Lord God Bird chopping away on the old live oak at the corner of the cottage where the Coupers were living until Papa's fine new house could be finished."
p. 47: "First light had now broken across the low, cloud-scudded rainy sky above Cannon’s Point. He could see swirls of white mist above the river, and Anne’s Lord God Bird was hacking away already at the old dead live oak she’d persuaded him to let stand just for the convenience of the comical, handsome woodpecker. 'I love that big bird, Papa,' Anne had insisted. 'He not only makes us laugh because he’s so huge and awkward, he has a red crest just like yours. Don’t’ argue with me. Leave the tree. Every fancy, rare kind of tree or bush you plant grows and thrives. It won’t hurt one bit for my Lord God Bird to have one fine dead one for bugs.'"
p. 132: "Now that he had come, Cannon’s Point was dearer, somehow more familiar. She glanced outside the open door beyond where he stood and smiled. On the thick, gray trunk of a big old oak, the Lord God Bird landed sideways, gave one comical blast from what had always sounded to Anne like a rusty tin horn, and flew off.
"Anne laughed softly. 'Do you know what a Lord God Bird is?' she asked."
p. 139: "After a handshake, the two men stood looking out over the bright, almost glasslike waters of the Hampton River toward Little St. Simons Island and the ocean beyond. A somewhat awkward silence was broken abruptly when a Lord God Bird in a pine above them sounded what Anne called his tin horn—three short toots.

"'That’s a pileated woodpecker,' Couper said lamely. 'My son insists that I call him by his correct name.'

"'Miss Anne’s Lord God Bird,' Fraser said warmly."
p. 140: "'Aye, Miss Anne has educated me about Cannon's Point in more than the habits of the Lord God Bird, sir.'"
p. 454: "'. . . I caught her last week drawing Anne's favorite big red-crested woodpecker!'

"'Annie's Lord God Bird?' he asked, brightening more than at any time since they'd sat down at the table."
p. 597: "Dear Miss Anne: This be Lord God Bird I done paint fer you and yer man. . . . . I hope you like it and ain't forgit your favrite Lord God Bird."
p. 598: "Anne was hungrily studying every stroke of Eve's painting of the big, red-crested woodpecker John knew she had always loved. She'd told him even while she was his captive on Cumberland Island that her papa's people called the huge woodpecker the Lord God Bird. In Scotland, they'd looked and looked for one. Maybe Lord God Birds lived only on Georgia coastal islands."
p. 600: "I caused those sobs when you looked at Eve's painting of the Lord God Bird."
Where shadows go, by Eugenia Price (1993; paperback edition published 1996 July 15) – 5 encounters:
p. 261: "'You’re the one who painted Mrs. Fraser’s picture of a woodpecker—the Lord God Bird—and sent it to her in London, aren’t you?'"
p. 298: "'Yes,' he chuckled. 'I knew, beloved Anne. Your big Lord God Bird told me late yesterday just before I started my ride home from our south field.'"
p. 528: "When young Fanny Fraser took her mother’s hand, Anne said, 'Fanny, I see Pete hurrying back from the stable. You and John Couper, go with her to find Eve. This is the day when Eve teaches you all how to paint the Lord God Bird.'

"Fanny Kemble Buttler laughed. 'And what, pray tell, is a Lord God Bird?'

"'That’s what our people call a huge, pileated woodpecker,' Anne said, taking her guest’s arm to lead her up the steps to the veranda, where they both took chairs."
p. 576: "Shadows and sun-streaks were as much a part of life on St. Simons as her family, as much a part of Island life as wrens and flycatchers and nonpareils and Lord God Birds and vines and moss and woods tangles."
Eugenia Price's South: a guide to the people and places of her beloved region, by Mary Bray Wheeler (1993 May; paperback edition published 2005 July 20) - 1 encounter:
p. 50: ". . . and grief-filled sobs broken only by the crisp call of the painted bunting or the thunderous hammering of the Lord God Bird (pileated woodpecker) far into the deep, dark woods of yesterday."
Go down, Moses: annotations, by Nancy D. Taylor (1994) – 4 encounters:
p. 188: In reference to Faulkner’s use of Lord-to-God on p. 202 of Go Down, Moses, Taylor says: "Brown [a reference to Calvin Brown’s A Glossary of Faulkner’s South, Yale University Press, 1976] identifies this as the pileated woodpecker, 'a magnificent crow-sized bird (Drycopus pileatus) colored black and white, with a large, flaming-red crest in both sex' (Glossary 123).
"John T. Hiers believes [as he wrote in American Literature] the names Lord-to-God bird, God-a-Mighty bird and Lord-God bird indicate 'the spontaneous awe its sudden appearance usually evokes.' His suggestion that the bird might have been the now-extinct Ivorybill rather than the pileated woodpecker is less convincing (636)."
Diamond mask, by Julian May (1994 March 22; paperback edition published 1995 January 30) - 1 encounter:
p. 304: "In the middle distance I heard an authoritative tunk-a-tunk-tunk-tak-tak that could only be the work of the rare feathered pile driver that backwoodsmen call the Good God Woodpecker, an amazing bird nearly half a meter in length with black and yellowish-white plumage and a jaunty red crest.

"I couldn't help perking up and opened my pack in search of my camera."
Beauty from ashes, by Eugenia Price (1995; paperback edition published 1996 June 15) – 2 encounters:
p. 85: "A Lord God Bird, the huge, awkward, red-crested woodpecker who had been her childhood friend, sounded his tin-horn call from somewhere above here head in the top of the tall hickory. Lord God Birds squawked often, but normally at a distance. She had never heard one so close."
Iowa's wild places: an exploration with Carl Kurtz, by Carl Kurts (1996 July 15) - 1 encounter:
p. 152: "The pileated woodpecker has been called the 'Great God Woodpecker.'"
Last days of the dog-men, by Brad Watson (1996; paperback edition published 2002 August) – 1 encounter:
pp. 119-120: "Watching Junior you could see that this dog was aggressively stupid. A reckless, lumbering beast with no light in his eyes, floundering onto old Buddy’s back, slamming into the boy and knocking him down. The boy is about ten or eleven and named Ulysses though they call him Lee (sort of a joke), thin as a tenpenny nail, with spectacles like his mama. He was eating it up, rolling in the grass and laughing like a lord-god woodpecker, Junior rooting at him like a hog."
The black flower: a novel of the Civil War, by Howard Bahr (1997 April; paperback edition published 2000 May 5) – 1 encounter:
p. 233: "Other creatures lived in the shadows among the twisted branches and vines. These the Negroes told about, down in the Quarters summer nights, when they sat on up-ended oak slabs by a smudge fire. The Wampus-cat, they said, would get you if you went in there, and rip your belly open with his tushes. There was a Great Pig, a hundred years old, that stole bad children and left their bones gnawed and white in the blow-downs. There was the Lord-to-God bird, and a silver dog that came on the full moon before somebody died. There were plat-eyed, too—restless things risen out of the old slave burying-ground."
The backyard bird-lover's guide: attracting, nesting, feeding, by Jan Mahnken and Jeffrey C. Domm (1998 April) - 3 encounters:
p. 174: "Pileated woodpeckers are known by some interesting names, including logcock, Wood Kate, and (a series I can only assume resulted from first impressions) Great God woodpecker, Good God woodpecker, and Lord God woodpecker."
Prodigal summer: a novel, by Barbara Kingsolver (2000 October 17; paperback edition published 2001 October 16) – 1 encounter:
p. 202: "For a minute she watched this pileated woodpecker couple playing checkers with themselves. They were huge, as big as flying black cats, and impossible to ignore their big, haughty voices and upswept red crests. She received a vision of ghosts, imagined for a moment the ivory bills—dead cousins to these pileated woodpeckers that had been even bigger, with nearly a three-foot wingspan and a cold, white-eyed stare. Lord God birds, people used to call them, for that was what they’d cry when they saw one. Never again."
Hope is the thing with feathers: a personal chronicle of vanished birds, by Christopher Cokinos (2000 November; paperback edition published 2001 April 1) - 15 encounters
p. 61: "Two of its nicknames announce the awe that this bird inspired--the Lord God Bird and King of the Woodpeckers. Observers impressed with the huge Ivory-bill would blurt, 'Lord God!'"
p. 64: "Painting the Ivory-bill stayed utmost in [Alexander] Wilson's mind, but he gleaned from the esperience a powerful story that pits the feisty dignity of the proud, wounded bird against the resless encroachment of pioneering settlements, embodied in the fact that it was hotel room in which this Lord God Bird died."
p. 65: "Would there be--could there be--another resurrection for the Lord God Bird?"
p. 67: "Could the Lord God Bird remain with them long enough to reveal mysteries of its life and, therefore, long enough for scientists to understand how it might be protected?"
p. 75: "With temperatures in the 80s, the men spent 36 hours on foot (and perhaps in canoes) as they looked for the Lord God Bird."
p. 84: "I like to imagine Allen, Kellogg and Tanner driving through my state, through Kansas, through the worst of the Dust Bowl's haggard territory, with their captured light, the virtual representations of the Lord God Birds."
p. 89: "He [James Tanner] bean to show drawings of the Pileated and the Ivory-bill, calling the bird by colloquial names like Old Kate or Lord God or Woodcock."
p. 95: "What all this means is that the Lord God Bird existed in a niche almost as slender as a feather."
p. 97: "A nongame-protection act passed in Florida in 1901 did little to protect the Lord God Bird in that state, though a jury found at least one dealer guilty of peddling dead Ivory-bills."
p. 99: "Having seen a female and a young Ivory-bill adjust to the presence of loggers in 1941, in John's Bayou, Tanner believed humans and Lord God Birds could co-exist in the Singer Tract."
p. 106: "Both the Pileated and the much smaller Red-headed Woodpecker have been visually mistaken for the Lord God Bird."
p. 108: "The supposed presence of Lord God Birds in South Carolina's Santee Swamp drew crowds of noisy birds, scientists and duck hunters in 1971. . . .

"In 1987, Jerome Jackson, one of the world's authorities on Ivory-bills, heard, with a student, what they considered to be a Lord God Bird."
p. 111: "The Lord God Bird may not be extinct, though it has vanished from the gaze of all but a few who have claimed to see real, living, breathing Ivory-bills. For the rest of us, uncertain and expectant, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers remain rumor, specter and desire."
p. 112: "Until his death on January 21, 1991, Tanner could watch the eyes, staring and precisely yellow, of his Lord God Birds."
Tree castle island, by Jean Craighead George (2002, April 30, paperback edition published2003 April 30) - 4 encounters:
p. 9: "'Probably a Good-God, way out in the swamp,' I said aloud. A Good-God is that huge pileated woodpecker. At least that's what they're called by Georgia Crackers, folks like Uncle Hamp whose great-greats were born and raised here. The woodpeckers stand almost two feet high and scare you out of your skin when they call to each other."
p. 32: "I was rolling up my blue jeans when I heard a Good-God woodpecker drilling."
p. 55: "Like islands that sail in the wind, like sounds that turn out to be Good-God woodpeckers, that cry had to have a natural explanation, I told myself."
The ghost with trembling wings: science, wishful thinking, and the search for lost species, by Scott Weidensaul (2002 June 15; paperback edition published 2003 June 11) - 3 encounters:
p. 49: "Many country folks called it the 'kent,' 'kint,' 'caip,' 'kate,' or some other derivation of its raucous call. But more often, the names they used for the ivorybill reflected the dazzle of seeing one of these huge birds rowing through the light-splashed swamps on powerful wings. King of the Woodpeckers, they called it. Log-cock. King Woodchuck. Giant woodpecker. Log God. Like the smaller but similar pileated woodpecker, it was sometimes called the Lord God bird, or the By-God, because that's what a breathless greenhorn said when he first saw one: By God, look at that bird."
p. 59: "Shively describes himself as 'officially agnostic' on the subject of Lord God birds in the twenty-first century, trying to straddle the fence for as long as possible in order to keep himself open to evidence, pro or con."
The way to the salt marsh: a John Hay reader, by John Hay and Christopher Merrill (2002 September 3) – 1 encounter:
p. 140: "A big pileated woodpecker hitched up the bark of a pine, an erect, black body with a flaming, scarlet crest, giving a raucous, clarion shout. They called it the 'Lord God bird' in parts of the South."
The bird-lover's backyard handbook: attracting, nesting feeding, by Jan Mahnken, Hugh Wiberg, Rene Laubach, and Christyna Laubach (2003 April) - 3 encounters:
p. 242: "Pileated woodpeckers are known by some interesting names, including logcock, Wood Kate, and (a series I can only assume resulted from first impressions) Great God woodpecker, Good God woodpecker, and Lord God woodpecker."
In search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, by Jerome A. Jackson (2004 August; paperback edition published 2006 May 9) - 2 encounters:
p. 2: "It is no wonder that early settlers in the southeast referred to them as the 'Lord God woodpecker.' I can easily imagine that on seeing such a woodpecker for the first time one might silently exhort, 'Lord God, what a woodpecker!'"
p. 230: "Literature also abounds with references that are unquestionably or likely references to ivory-bills. It seems highly likely that rural African Americans in the American South knew of ivory-billed woodpeckers, and it also seems likely that there were unique cultural ties linking African American culture to the ivory-bill. One of these might be found in William Faulkner's story of 'The Bear.' In the story, Faulkner refers to a big woodpecker called 'Lord-to-God' by the 'Negroes.'"
The race to save the Lord God bird, by Phillip Hoose (2004 August) - 6 encounters:
p. 93: "They [loggers, hunters, trappers, poachers, and wildlife officials] gave him still more names of old-timers who knew the land. He [James Tanner] dutifully looked most of them up. But everywhere the story was the same--yes, Ivory-bills, or Log-cocks, or Lord God birds had been there, but not for a while."
p. 110: "The Chicago Mill and Lumber Company's giant band saw in Tallulah was devouring the last nesting, roosting, and food trees of the Lord God bird as fast as logs could be fed in. Time was running out fast for the Ivory-bill."
p. 118: "And so the race was on: could the last Ivory-bill forest be saved before the Lord God bird ran out of food?"
p. 130: "With too little light left to sketch, [Don] Eckelberry just watched, awestruck, until dark. He felt like he was staring at eternity. This single unmated female was all that remained of the Lord God bird that had commanded America's great swamp forests for thousands of years."
p. 153: "So the Lord God bird remained a ghost. And as these words are written, it still is. But no one wants to give up on it. The bird may be extinct, but our connection it isn't."
p. 155: "Now it's our turn to do all we can to keep other species from sharing the ghostly fate of the Lord God bird.
Looking for Mr. Gilbert: The reimagined life of an African American, by John Hanson Mitchell (2005 January 9) – 1 encounter:
p. 39: "A jay called, and then a large dark bird swept by, landed somewhere out of sight, and began hammering on a dead tree trunk—a pileated woodpecker, a bird the local blacks used to call the Lord-to-God bird. High above, lit from beneath by the lowering sun, a vulture tilted past a clearing in the butternuts."
The grail bird: hot on the trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, by Tim Gallagher (2005 May 18; paperback edition published 2006 April 18) - 3 encounters:
p. 18: "Just as the Cornell team had grilled Mason Spencer about his [Louisiana] ivory-bill sightings in the 1930s, [John] Dennis cross-examined the man who had guided Whitney Eastman [to a nesting pair of ivory-bills on the Chipola River in Florida]. 'No sirree,' said the man, 'this ain't one of them good gods. This here's an ivory-bill for sure.' Pileated woodpeckers were often known colloquially as 'Good God' birds, because that's what people said when they came across one. The ivory-bills, in contrast, were called 'Lord God' birds, because people who saw one were likely to exclaim, 'Lord God, what a bird!"
Common life (Notable voices), by Robert Cording (2006 May 31) – 1 encounter:
p. 97: "Lord God Bird—a nickname for the ivory billed woodpecker" [title of a poem]
Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion, by Pete Dunne (2006) - 1 encounter:
p. 390: "The Second Coming of the Lord God Bird . . . .

"An impressively large, crested, black, white, and (males) red woodpecker whose size and splendor was enough to provoke observers to exclaim: 'Lawd Gahd!'"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

More great research. Thanks for posting it.

I think this is a key line in one description of Ghost with Trembling Wings

Approximately 30,000 species of animals and plants go extinct every year. Weidensaul's narrative concerns those rare occurrences when a supposedly extinct animal makes a surprise reappearance, and the much more frequent occasions when scientists or civilians only think they've sighted a vanished creature.

June 01, 2007 11:23 AM  
Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

The world is full of appellations and attributions that are widely believed to be rooted in folklore, but are really just something somebody made up recently.

Regardless of what it used to mean, that's what it means now.

June 01, 2007 12:42 PM  
Blogger cyberthrush said...

John, methinkest you're MORE obsessed than I am... now go pet your dog for gosh sakes!

June 01, 2007 1:14 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Anonymous at 11:23 AM: I agree.

Bill Pulliam: The real point is, are these "real" appellations and attributions that were actually used by local people, or are they fabrications? Most fascinating to me are the many explantions (most if not all of them patently false) that have been put forth to explain the origin of Lord God Bird.

cyberthrush: Yes, we all have our obsessions, don't we? But at least mine are relatively benign.

June 01, 2007 1:52 PM  
Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

Oh, I'm not disagreing with the value or interest of what you're doing, just mentioning that this is something that people do all the time. And the fabrications become their own folklore. Look how many people think we just had a "blue moon" (made up by one 20th-Century writer). Ask 10 people the origin of the "F" word and someone will tell you with certainty that it is an acronym that includes either "Fornicate" or "Carnal Knowledge" (it isn't). The Lord God thing fits exactly into this entrenched pattern of popular myth building.

For the record, growing up in Ivorybill country, I never heard the term "Lord God bird" before this century. And I still have never actually heard it except in NPR stories. All the locals I knew called them "Ahv'ry bills."

June 01, 2007 11:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with John that an accurate history of the name is relevant and important. Good work, John. Phillip Hoose mentioned, based on Tanner's work, that Ivory-bills had several different colloquial names depending on region. Were any "Lord God" bird?

It should be noted that discussion of this troublesome and inaccurate use occurred in the Wikipedia account for Ivory-billed Woodecker starting in March 2006. A contributor by the name of 'cotinis' had posted a fairly good summary here (John's research is now cited there as well). The discussion started when someone noted how Tim Gallagher had reported that a common colloquial distinction did exist between "Good God" for Pileated and "Lord God" for Ivory-billed (pg. 18 of The Grail Bird). This clearly is not supported. The erosion of scholarship and critical reasoning is a prominent characteristic of those pushing that they have made a "rediscovery."

June 02, 2007 9:40 AM  
Blogger Cotinis said...

Oh, John, just another comment on this. Way back when, I saw somebody had scanned the front end paper of Where Shadows Go, by Eugenia Price. There is a map of the area, and the quote "The Lord God Bird loves St. Simons", and a very identifiable drawing of a Pileated Woodpecker. I can't find the scan on the Internet, but it is mentioned in this Birdchat message from the year 2000.

Again, great work on all this

April 11, 2008 10:03 AM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Thanks, Cotinus. That's a very interesting reference and commentary.

April 11, 2008 10:16 AM  

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