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The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker of the Mind

Extinction is final. Or maybe not. Consider the ivory-billed woodpecker. Like the grizzly bear in the Southern Rockies, the ivory-bill, which once inhabited lowlands and deep forests across the Southeastern coastal plain, has been considered a vanished species for several decades.

So the announcement in 2005 of a sighting by a couple of respected birders in 2004 followed by a short video taken in the same Arkansas swamp that year of an apparent ivory-bill in flight authenticated by the prestigious Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology induced a kind of giddy euphoria among those who have held out hope against hope that America’s largest woodpecker might have actually escaped the noose of extinction. It became international news.

The tale of the recent sightings is recounted in a 2006 book, The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Author Tim Gallagher, an editor at the Cornell Lab, and fellow birder Bobby Harrison were following up on what they felt was a credible IBWO sighting by Arkansan Gene Sparling in the White River National Wildlife Refuge in February 2004. Gallagher was working on an ivory-bill book.

Two months later, they watched a bird they identified as an ivory-bill fly over their canoe in the same area where Sparling saw his bird. That sighting was followed by a ten-second video from birder David Luneau’s canoe-mounted camera in the same general area. Suddenly Gallagher had the perfect ending to his ivory-bill book.

Some felt it was too perfect, and not everyone in birding circles greeted the news with as much enthusiasm as Cornell, which staked its considerable ornithological reputation on the Gallagher/Harrison sighting and Luneau film. The grainy, four-second video has been analyzed almost as carefully as the Zapruder JFK assassination clip. Cornell even went back to the site and built models of the wings flapping to help prove its point.

David Sibley, noted illustrator and publisher of the popular bird guidebooks that bear his name, did his own study of the Luneau footage and published his results in a recent Science magazine. His conclusion: It’s a pileated woodpecker, a slightly smaller species prominent in the area easily mistaken for an ivory-bill by any but the most trained eye.

And though Jerome Jackson, the foremost living researcher of ivory-bills whose own book, In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, preceded Gallagher’s by a year, doesn’t discount that a few ivory-bills might still inhabit some remote lowland in Florida, or Louisiana, or even Arkansas, he, too, along with other bird enthusiasts, doubts the veracity of the Cornell video analysis.

Another prominent dissenter is Tom Nelson, who produces Ivory-Bill Skeptic. Nelson includes daily updates and links to everything written about ivory-bills, a must-read for anybody interested in the current scrap.

The expensive, systematic three-year search in the White River refuge is finishing its third season, and except for some anecdotal sightings by researchers, there has been no actual evidence forthcoming to prove the ivory-bill’s existence. The many recordings of the distinctive ivory-bill kent call are inconclusive at best.

Listening to a real ivory bill recorded in Texas’s Singer Tract in 1935 gives us a taste of why the ivory bill story sticks with us, why we want to believe it might still be alive. Its 46 seconds sound magical and mystical — like primitive jazz played on a miniature trumpet and a log. Likewise, the photos on the same page evoke something lost.

An Auburn University team led by ornithology professor Geoff Hill said last year that it has been documenting sightings, capturing audio evidence and measuring and photographing nest cavities since 2005 in the Choctawhatchee river in the Florida panhandle. Several people in the study group claim multiple sightings of birds with ivory-bill markings.

“I’m looking out my bedroom window in Clearwater right now,” a reader told the St. Petersburg Times in March. “There’s one of those woodpeckers 12 feet away.” After 60 years, suddenly everybody is seeing ivory-bills. That’s not a good sign.

I read Gallagher and Jackson’s books with great enthusiasm in the spring of 2006, but since then, the lack of evidence beyond murky recordings of woodland sounds and tales of cameras that wouldn’t work has cooled any fervor about rediscovery I might have had. The paucity of real evidence is overwhelmingly against the bird’s rediscovery.

Not that it hasn’t been worth the study. The birds’ story is so sad and strangely compelling. A woodpecker the size of a crow with a voice that sounded like a toy trumpet and a powerful rapping technique that echoed through the forest, ivory-bills lived on the beetles and larvae beneath the bark of fallen trees. They traveled far to forage and built roosts 40 feet up in sweetgum, oak and other trees in lowlands and swamps mostly inhospitable to any but the most fanatical human beings. As In Search of the Ivory-Bill Woodpecker points out, the ivory-bill was apparently never really bountiful.

Most of the blame for the bird’s extinction is laid at the feet of whites, who clear-cut the immense forests of the Southeast with a particularly zealous efficiency. But the arrival of Europeans only hastened a process set in motion by Native Americans, who plundered the birds’ colorful plumage for ornamentation, totems and trade items. Ivory-bill reproduction plummeted as the price of their eggs rose among early collectors.

After Europeans arrived, swamps were drained, forests of old-growth timber were cut, churning up ancient ivory-bill habitat and spitting it back out as farmland. Nobody seemed to care. “In the last years of the 19th and the first years of the 20th century, many observers commented on the ivory bill’s imminent demise,” Jackson writes. “Yet nothing was done to help the species.”

Though they sit on opposite sides of the current ivory-bill rediscovery fence, Gallagher and Jackson have much in common; each has spent decades sifting through historical evidence, talking with people who saw the birds and exploring areas where ivory-bills were once seen, and their books are rich with ivory-bill lore.

Both pay tribute to and borrow liberally from James T. Tanner’s The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, the only scientific study, first published in 1942 for the Audubon Society, is still in print. During two trips to the Singer Tract in Texas, Tanner came back with detailed information, including photos and a short video, on ivory-bill habits, behavior, reproduction, feeding habits and ecology.

Between Tanner, Gallagher and Jackson’s books, you are privy to pretty much all the accumulated human knowledge and photos of a bird so striking that it was called the “Lord God Bird” or “Good God Bird” because that’s what people said as they watched it pass over. Each chronicles a sad tale of extinction from a variety of causes, biological, ecological, political, agricultural, environmental and cultural.

So did Gallagher and Harrison really see an ivory-bill? Does Luneau’s film show an icon of extinction come to life ? Can Hicks have seen an extinct bird more than 20 times?

The lust to find something again that has disappeared from the earth is hard-wired into our psyche. All birders, even skeptics like Tom Nelson, want the ivory-bill to be found. But only if it is based on actual proof, and unless you unequivocally believe the Luneau video and trust Cornell, we just don’t have that now.

At least we have the books. Gallagher and Jackson, like Tanner before them, share the insatiable curiosity and obsession of the fanatic, wading in latte-colored water that seeps above their waders, shivering in chilly, wet sleeping bags and enduring chiggers, mosquitoes and water moccasins in pursuit of those ten seconds of ecstasy. That curiosity and obsession inform these books, making the ivory-bills story real for those of us who were never able to see one.

Reading their words, it is easy to conjure the ivory-bill of the imagination, roosting high in the sweetgum, rooting for grubs deep in the timber, sounding its trumpet, blissfully unaware of all around and below.

1 comment

1 The Lord God Bird Comes to Film — Jukebox in My Head { 11.18.08 at 3:59 pm }

[...] posts on ivory bills here and here. [...]

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