That the ivory-billed woodpecker, the “Lord God bird,” is not extinct after all is an idea that still pecks at the hearts and minds of the lucky seven who’ve seen him and their less fortunate colleagues.
But unless a host of scientists from Arkansas, the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology and nine other universities, and the editors of the prestigious journal Science have all gone completely bonkers, a species not seen in Arkansas for a century, a picky woodpecker whose chosen habitat of swampy, old-growth woods has been virtually eliminated, was zipping about the Bayou DeView in Monroe County at least as recently as Valentine’s Day. Scientists don’t know where in the woods he was born, whether his parents still live, whether the half-million acres in east Arkansas called the Big Woods might harbor a mate for him -- or whether our most famous new resident is the last of his kind, a dead bird walking.
But apparently at least six generations of ivory-billed woodpeckers cheated extinction, survived the leanest times in the Southeastern woods, and produced “Elvis,” a male bird seen, heard, and, by the grace of God, videotaped. He has not left the building.
Poet Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is about the vagaries of perception. This story is about how we see things too. And so: 13 ways of looking at an ivory-billed woodpecker.
Not everyone gets all the fuss over the bird. Why such jubilation? Why did grown men and women weep at the news, put on page one of newspapers coast to coast? Why would the federal government offer $10 million that could go to the humans in the Delta to woodpecker habitat instead? Why would a philanthropist privately lend the Arkansas field office of the Nature Conservancy up to $20 million at no interest?
Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee praised the bird as a possible boon to tourism but warned that extraordinary efforts to protect him might harm the “ecobalance” forged with farming, logging, and hunting to date.
Others say what’s good for the woodpecker is good for the people. Enthusiasts wanting to get a gander will need hotels to sleep in and restaurants to eat in when they hit the Delta next fall. Dozens of small entrepreneurs already have sprung up in Monroe County and surrounds to hawk ivory-bill ball caps, T-shirts, paintings, wooden cutouts, and swamp trips. Gene’s Barbecue in Brinkley, Arkansas, sells “Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Cheeseburgers” and “Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Salads.” (“Tastes just like pileated!”)
The good has generally drowned out the bad, such as complaints that a section of the Cache River National Wildlife refuge has been closed.
2. As an Obsession
The obsession with the ivory-bill derives partly from the pterodactyl looks that give it its “Lord God!” nickname. The long-beaked bird is 20 inches tall -- about the same length as this newspaper opened and held vertically -- and has a large crest on its head (red on males, black on females) and a dramatic zigzag of white cutting through its black form. Its wingspan is a shadow-casting three feet.
We thought we’d wiped out North America’s largest woodpecker -- sacrificed it to our needs for money and land without considering ways to co-exist. Who hasn’t longed to talk once again with a departed loved one? The ivory-bill gives us a rare sweet chance to do that.
The bird is the word -- but what it says is this: Three decades of conservation work to bring the Big Woods back to health are working. The Big Woods, a remnant of 20 million acres of forest that once ran from the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to the foot of Louisiana, has been reduced to but 500,000 acres. An alliance of Delta duck hunters and conservationists fought off those who’d ditch it and cut it and turn it to rice fields. Now, it’s more livable for animals, but the Big Woods can make the Delta more livable for people too.
3. From a Kayak
The ivory-bill is also a tease -- flitting into someone’s view every few years or so, in the Big Thicket of Texas (1966), the Pearl River in Louisiana (1999), Cuba (where it’s been missing since 1987), never to return, never to be photographed.
People have claimed to see the bird in the Big Woods over the years, but if you’re a biologist with a reputation to maintain, saying you’ve seen an ivory-billed woodpecker can ruin you. That’s why searchers spent months in the swamps to document that the Cache harbored not just the common, and quite similar, pileated woodpecker, but the majestic Campephilus principalis.
Ultimately, a videotape shot just weeks after the bird’s first sighting was the ticket to success, four seconds of serendipitous blur captured by a camera mounted on a milk crate in a canoe.
Gene Sparling, a ruddy, red-bearded nature lover from Hot Springs, Arkansas, wouldn’t have seen the Lord God bird if he hadn’t been drifting slowly in his kayak down the Bayou DeView, in rapt wonder at the swamp’s ancient trees. He’d seen cypress stumps big enough to camp on, he wrote in a report he posted on the Arkansas Canoe Club Web site when he got home; got into “a staring contest” with an otter; saw barred and great horned owls.
His third day out, February 11, 2004, Sparling was enjoying a contemplative, even spiritual, moment. And that’s when the spirit moved right at him, in the form of a large bird flying up the channel. The bird veered off to a tree on Sparling’s right about 60 feet away, and Sparling said to himself, that’s the biggest pileated woodpecker I ever saw.
Sparling noticed a “parchment tinge” to the perched bird’s back feathers. The bird jerked around the tree, looked back at Sparling, and flew off in a straight line.
The kayaker’s thoughts about the bird began to make “a little groove in my brain,” he related to a reporter 15 months later: “It looks like an ivory-billed, but it can’t be an ivory-billed, because they’re extinct. But it’s not a pileated. So it must be an ivory-billed. But it can’t be an ivory-billed, because they’re extinct ”
Sparling also wrote in his posting, “I also (and I hesitate to say this) saw a pileated woodpecker that was way too big, the white and black colors seemed to be reversed on the wings, and the white was yellowish off-white. You birders know what is inferred, but I don’t have the conviction to say.”
Right away a woman called Sparling to chastise him, he said, for posting news that might send hordes of birders to the swamp. She advised him to e-mail his sighting to ivory-bill tracker Mary Scott of Arizona.
Scott, whose claim that she’d seen an ivory-bill in the southeastern part of the White River National Wildlife Refuge in 2003 was taken seriously enough by the Cornell lab that it installed mikes on remote recorders in the area of the sighting, forwarded Sparling’s e-mail to the editor of Cornell’s Living Bird magazine, Tim Gallagher, in Ithaca, New York.
4. With Expert Eyes
Gallagher was writing a book about ivory-bill sightings when Sparling’s note came to him. It didn’t seem so far-fetched; he’d been to the part of the White River refuge Scott had visited and had seen something promising: big areas of bark chiseled from recently dead trees, the method ivory-bills used to get at their preferred food, huge beetle grubs. Gallagher called his friend and bird enthusiast Bobby Harrison and asked him to go to Arkansas with him. He told Harrison that Sparling “must have seen something out there,” Gallagher said, unless he was “hallucinating, drinking too much swamp water.”
The rest is history: The two, led by Sparling through the swamp, simultaneously saw an ivory-bill their second day out, February 27th. “It was like having a bucket of cold water thrown in our face,” Gallagher said. The bird flew 30 feet into the woods, and the men jumped out of their canoe into muck up to their knees and splashed through the swamp in pursuit, climbing over fallen timbers, camcorders swinging from their necks. When the bird was gone, they sat and sketched what they’d seen. Harrison began to bawl. He’d seen the holy grail. Sparling, who’d gone upriver a ways because, he said, the two were too noisy for him, returned. When he saw the state they were in, it sank in that he really had seen an ivory-billed woodpecker.
Then all hell broke loose, if in a contained way. Sparling called a few folks, including director Scott Simon of the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas, ensuring a call-back with this message: “This is going to be the best phone call you get all week.” Gallagher called John Fitzpatrick, head of the Cornell lab, and told him it was the real thing.
5. Secretively, by Team Elvis
On March 1st, Fitzpatrick called Simon, and after a conversational pas de deux the men determined each knew about the bird and agreed to work together. The Nature Conservancy had a conservation plan in place already and assembled a team in three hours that knew the lay of the land; Cornell had experts, equipment, and credentials.
What followed was a Series of Fortunate Events, in which a hush-hush group of some 200 people, sworn to secrecy, managed to keep the chase secret for 14 months (including one researcher married to a journalist). One group raised money, bought land, hammered out plans with state and federal wildlife agencies, made plans on how to handle the media in the case of leaks, and the eventual announcement. Thirty full-time researchers and dozens more volunteers -- Team Elvis -- hit the swamps of the Cache and White River National Wildlife Refuge -- paddling, sitting, hiking, installing audio recording devices and motion-triggered cameras, getting lost, twisting ankles, and steaming in hot camouflage tents called gilly suits.
They set up in a house bought in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, and rentals in Brinkley and St. Charles. The Yankees were told not to stand out. Nevertheless, one searcher took his iguana for walks in St. Charles and a couple -- he from the Netherlands, she from Borneo -- bought used bikes and rode them to fetch their groceries, raising a few eyebrows in Brinkley.
Diplomacy was needed, though team members say there was amazing cooperation throughout. Bobby Harrison wanted assurance he’d get the first photograph, what some people were calling the “million dollar picture.” Tim Gallagher wanted his book out first. They and others were frank about their motivations, Scott Simon said, and he worked “to make sure their dreams didn’t get lost.”
Money came in, in cold cash and pledges. Billionaires were treated to tours of the swamps and East Arkansas motels. The father of a woman on the search crew donated a jet for the team’s use. A close link to the Republican administration emerged in the form of John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, who’d served as head of USA Freedom Corps in President Bush’s first term. He and Robert Nixon, a conservationist and TV and film producer, called to see how they could help out. (Bridgeland now serves on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Recovery Team Executive Committee.)
In the first three months, field biologists spent 2,500 hours surveying nearly six square miles. For 165 long days, videographer Ted Barksdale perched in an elevated boom peeking into the bayou.
Woodpecker lingo took form. When somebody said, “Look at that A-hole,” they were referring to a tree cavity big and irregular enough to qualify as a possible ivory-bill nest or roost. (B-holes were maybes; C-holes pileated.) The small area where the sightings took place, in and near the Benson Creek area of the bayou, became the “hot zone.”
The locals asked questions: What’s that 85-foot boom doing over there on the edge of the woods? Why’s the guy with the funny-looking boat here all the time? What’s with all the people and canoes and cameras going in and out of the swamps?
Lies were told, lots and lots of lies. The official story: Biologists were making an inventory of the flora and fauna of the Big Woods.
Still, people wondered. Gene DePriest, who owns Gene’s Barbecue, said he was pretty sure they were looking for a rare owl. Someone else asked Sparling if it was “that forked-tailed woodpecker” they were after, melding the grail bird with the swallow-tailed kite that had returned to the White River a few years earlier.
Working in secrecy’s favor, said the man from the Netherlands -- big-woodpecker expert Martjan Lammertink -- was that people were too polite to press, even though they were providing access to the Cache from private land and helping out in other ways. “They were generous without having to know the truth.”
The Nature Conservancy and Cornell raised $10 million in cash and pledges. And before the bird word got out, the conservancy had bought or optioned 18,000 acres for conservation, at a cost of $30 million.
6. Through the Lens of a Video Camera
Early in 2005, Team Elvis was edgy. There had been no reportable sightings between June 2004 and February 2005, though sounds like the bird’s characteristic BAM-bam double knock were heard. Lammertink, increasingly skeptical, was particularly uneasy. He and the team were about to report to Science magazine that a bird had come back from the dead, but they had no photographs.
But they did have video, shot with a Canon GL-2 by computer whiz David Luneau, a University of Arkansas professor and a veteran of the 2002 Pearl River search, on April 25, 2004, as he and his brother-in-law cruised the Bayou DeView checking recording devices. For four seconds, a blurry bird flew from a tupelo gum away from the canoe. The Cornell lab downloaded the video to software that extracted and de-interlaced frames to reveal the detail and then magnified it.
Viewers gasped at what they saw. A mere six pixels of perched bird now revealed alternating bands of black, white, and black on its back. On takeoff, the bird flaps wings black on the leading edge, white on the trailing edge -- the reverse of the pileated pattern.
Still, Lammertink wanted to go further. Over beers with a crew from National Public Radio in March 2005, he decided to re-enact the Luneau video. Harrison carved full-sized models of pileated and ivory-billed woodpeckers, and the team placed them on the same tupelo tree shot in Luneau’s video. They filmed them again, at the same distance. Lammertink ran through the swamp pulling strings to flap the wings of the wooden woodpeckers. The team did 33 takes and then compared it to Luneau’s video.
Now, the team was reassured. The bird Luneau filmed was no pileated. Their paper announcing the find was completed and sent to Science April 6th.
7. As News Too Good To Keep Secret
Then, BAM-bam. On April 26th this year, with peer reviews of the paper still out, news of the bird began to hit the Internet. What was now called the Big Woods Conservation Partnership went into high gear -- biologists pulling an all-nighter editing the paper for Science, managers notifying agencies and others that a press conference they thought they had three weeks to plan for would be held April 28th in Washington, D.C., with Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
Science published the paper online the morning of the press conference. With hundreds of TV camera lights in their faces, Sparling, Luneau, Simon, and others not used to being on national television joined Norton on stage to announce that one male ivory-billed woodpecker had been seen and videotaped in the Cache National Wildlife Refuge.
There was elation -- and there were some ruffled feathers among folks who, in the effort to keep the search contained (and some turf protected), had been left out of the loop. Arkansas Audubon was taken by surprise. Media were jealous of National Public Radio’s access that allowed it to break the news the day of the press conference with its Audio Expeditions. Some on the team itself were not happy that Gallagher’s book, published hot on the heels of the announcement, revealed the bird’s sighting was in the Bayou DeView. The refuge might not have had to close down 5,000 acres of the bayou to the public if he hadn’t (but it’s likely word would have gotten out anyway).
For the most part, the feathers have smoothed back down.
8. As Validation of Years of Work
As director of the Arkansas field office of the Nature Conservancy from 1986 to 2003, Nancy DeLamar spent a lot of time working on the Big Woods. She even gave the area its name. State Natural Heritage biologist Tom Foti recalls sitting in an airport bar after a conference on what he and colleagues were calling “the White River-lower Arkansas River Megasite.” DeLamar told them that wouldn’t do. William Faulkner didn’t name the place “megasite” and neither should they. Big Woods stuck.
After the bird surfaced, DeLamar’s successor, Scott Simon, summoned her to his office and made a mysterious request: He had big news, but she couldn’t exclaim aloud after he told her. Simon walked to a wall, took down a framed Audubon print of ivory-billed woodpeckers, and put it on the desk before DeLamar. “It’s here,” he said, on land the conservancy bought and still shared ownership in. Then they jumped up and down and embraced and cried, squealing as quietly as possible.
Rejoicing turned to reverie, DeLamar said. She, and Foti in a separate interview, recalled the people who came together in the 1970s to stop the ditching of the Cache River, the beginning of new life -- literally -- in the Big Woods.
In 1970, wetlands expert Harold Alexander called a new college graduate, Pratt Remmel, and told him that Remmel and his outfit, the Ecology Center, had to help stop the U.S. Corps of Engineers from turning the meandering Cache, a tributary of the White River, into a 232-mile-long straight, wide ditch. Remmel and Foti and other conservationists entered what was then a fierce fray over land use in east Arkansas. With attorney Richard Arnold, they successfully sued the Corps, getting a federal judge to rule that its 14-page analysis of the project’s environmental impact was too meager. The ruling, one of the first to follow the passage of the Environmental Protection Act, created a standard for future environmental impact statements.
But it was duck hunters and other home-grown conservationists who would carry the day. Stuttgart, Arkansas, dentist and big-game hunter Rex Hancock founded the Citizens’ Committee to Save the Cache and drilled his point at home and elsewhere in the Mississippi flyway that the number-one mallard wintering grounds in the nation should be preserved.
The Cache project was killed in 1978. In 1983, Kay Kelley Arnold founded the state’s Nature Conservancy office and began, with Hancock’s and DeLamar’s help, to raise money to buy acreage along the Cache.
In 1986, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge with land preserved by the conservancy and other interests.
In 1992, after years of supplication by the conservancy and enabled by Arkansas senator Dale Bumpers, Potlatch timber company, in a land swap, gave the White River refuge a 42,000-acre parcel of bottomland forest, creating a corridor of public land in the Big Woods.
The Cache refuge’s 61,000 acres, the White River refuge’s 160,000 acres, the state’s wildlife management areas, and private stewardship of good woods have added up to habitat suitable for an ivory-billed woodpecker. A healthy bottomland forest and lowland swamp 120 miles long and 20 miles wide could support 15 pairs of ivory-billed woodpeckers, the experts say.
They’ve got one male. Now they need a female.
9. As an Apparition
Team Elvis has detected intriguing bark scaling in the White River refuge. But they’ve also seen, thanks to a motion-triggered camera aimed at a scaled tree, bug-hunting pileateds creating much the same damage. From a platform along the bayou north of the Highway 17 bridge, Mel White, one of Arkansas’ premier birders and a volunteer searcher, watched a pileated “on a horizontal branch of a tupelo peel off strips of bark about 9 inches long.”
Arkansas State University professor of wildlife ecology Jim Bednarz has seen several pileated woodpeckers with an abnormal amount of white wing feathers in the Cache River refuge. With Team Elvis, he pursued three birds that showed a flash of white in flight and white on their backs as they were perched. All were pileated.
James Tanner, whose 1930s work on the ivory-billed woodpeckers of Louisiana’s Singer Tract old-growth forest is the only substantive published study, said he never saw the bird without hearing its nasal, tooting “kent” call first, but no searchers have heard the call, though Cornell’s remote units may have picked some up.
“I don’t see how biologically, logistically, the bird possibly could have survived,” White said. “But,” he added, “my opinion really doesn’t matter.” Those who are certain there’s an ivory-billed woodpecker out there “have 100 times more experience and discernment than I do.” He found the Luneau video hard to explain otherwise.
Bednarz, though he believes there is an isolated population of pileated woodpeckers in the Cache river bottoms that have an uncharacteristic amount of white on their wing feathers, said the Luneau video has left “no question in my mind that it’s an ivory-billed woodpecker.”
And the silence of the woodpeckers? Lammertink, intoxicated with the bird since childhood, who learned English reading Tanner’s book, considered a theory: As the birds declined, their need to call may have also. “There is definitely something going on there,” he mused.
Birds call to declare their territory. Perhaps there’s no one to call to.
10. As an Insert
David Allen Sibley, the artist and ornithologist whose field guides travel with virtually every birdwatcher who goes beyond his feeders, jumped in his camper and drove to Cotton Plant a week after the announcement of the bird’s discovery. He called it a “scouting trip,” the first of many.
The soft-spoken expert said he’d called the Cornell lab a year ago after he’d heard a rumor from Nature Conservancy people in Mississippi. When he got a “no comment,” he said, he knew something was up.
Motoring a canoe up the Cache May 5th, the keen-eyed Sibley called out the species flitting about and directed attention to their nests. He followed an egg-yellow prothonotary warbler into a small hole in a tree and a blue-gray gnatcatcher to his little lichen-covered nest, a mere bump on a limb. When a brown bird darted from one bank to the other, Sibley uttered quietly, “gray-cheeked thrush.” That’s a bird that mere mortals don’t call on the wing.
A Yale ornithologist’s son who dropped out of Cornell after a year so he could devote his time to studying and drawing birds, Sibley worked 12 years and drew 6,600 illustrations for his landmark Sibley Guide to Birds, published in 2000. It included 810 species.
But he did not include the ivory-billed woodpecker, saying in the preface that, sadly, the bird was probably extinct.
National Geographic and Peterson guides include the bird. Why did Sibley leave it out?
“I wrestled with it,” he said. But the bird hadn’t been documented in decades. In the end, he decided, if he were to include rare birds, it would be those one might actually see.
“I didn’t want to think it was extinct,” he added.
After an hour in the swamp, Sibley was anxious to start searching on foot. The Cache’s “hot zone” is not where the bird lives, Sibley said (echoing Team Elvis’ sentiments).
“In my experience,” he said, “when you’re in the right spot, you keep seeing the bird. They stick around.” He wanted to see that spot.
On his way back to the dock, in a dense cypress-filled channel, Sibley noticed fresh scaling on a tupelo whose bark ivory-bill beaks are designed to tackle.
Before coming to Arkansas, Sibley put on his Web site, SibleyGuides.com, a page on the ivory-bill. It can be downloaded and inserted into his bird guide.
11. As a Dead Bird Walking
On December 14, 1820, John James Audubon saw five ivory-billed woodpeckers just a mile below the Arkansas River at Arkansas Post “feeding on berries of some creeper keeping up a constant cry of pet pet pet,” Douglas James and Joseph Neal record in their book, Arkansas Birds.
But a century, and lots of logging, later, in 1924, the bird was presumed extinct. To prove to state wildlife officials the bird still existed, a Louisiana legislator shot an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Singer Tract in 1932. The National Audubon Society, in cooperation with Cornell, sent Tanner to the Singer Tract and across the Southeast to determine how many birds were left and determine what they needed to survive. Tanner and the Audubon battled to spare the old-growth woods of the Singer Tract. But the timber company that owned it kept logging, and in 1944, Audubon sent an artist to what was left of the tract to draw the last bird there, a female whose “kent” calls hadn’t been returned for a year.
Lammertink has searched for the ivory-bill in Cuba and for its cousin, the imperial woodpecker, in Mexico. The world’s expert in large woodpeckers has never seen either Campephilus. But he thinks it’s unlikely Elvis is the last of his kind. If a roost hole could be found or an intense area of foraging, the bird could be studied, followed on its rounds. It would be a breakthrough, the first step to getting real information on the species, which Lammertink believes has lived in the Big Woods for decades.
12. As Just Part of the Picture
What if the bird isn’t seen again? Will people mock the conservationists, and will money for Big Woods restoration dry up?
“We know this bird was alive on February 14th. If we don’t see it again, it’s still here,” Simon said. When winter comes and the woods open up, there will be a lot of people looking, he said, and a better chance of seeing it again.
But the Nature Conservancy, the Heritage Commission, and others are committed to the conservation and expansion of the Big Woods, ivory-bill or no ivory-bill. The Big Woods harbors eight other threatened or endangered species and 80 percent of the species of fish in the lower Mississippi Valley. And bears and wintering ducks.
Don’t forget, White River refuge director Larry Mallard says, signs of the Big Woods’ comeback began long before February 11, 2004.
In 1982, American bald eagles nested in the refuge, the first nest in Arkansas in 30 years. Black bears are now so plentiful that the refuge just exported 42 sows and 48 cubs to the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Arkansas.
In 2000, the swallow-tailed kite, a hawk that hadn’t nested in Arkansas in a century, returned. So far, the birds have failed to produce young, but just last month, a kite was seen carrying a stick in its mouth, making another go of it.
The Nature Conservancy’s goal is to add 200,000 acres to public lands in the Big Woods. “Even without the ivory-billed woodpecker,” Simon said, “we’d work there.”
13. As a Focus for the Future
Biologists and technical experts will return to the Cache and White River woods in the fall, when barren trees may give up the secretive bird. (For information on the woodpecker and driving directions to interpretive sites and view areas in the Big Woods, go to Nature.org.)
For now, the Nature Conservancy is taking its ivory-billed woodpecker show on the road, talking to conservationists and potential donors across the country.
The feds have formed the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Recovery Team Executive Committee, and Arkansans Scott Henderson, head of Game and Fish, and the conservancy’s DeLamar have a seat at the table. Scott Simon, Tom Foti, and deputy Game and Fish director David Goad will lead working groups created by the committee.
Other interests -- including the Corps, the departments of Interior and Agriculture, and the American Forest Foundation -- will have a say.
Land acquisition will be only a small part of what the group hopes to accomplish; its main goal will be to write a conservation plan for the Big Woods and other possible woodpecker holdouts in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and southern Georgia.
Many agencies, many goals. But, in Arkansas, Simon said, state, federal and nonprofit agencies have a good working relationship, “a history of finding balance.
“If there’s any place in the world to preserve this bird,” he said, “it’s going to be Arkansas.”
Leslie Newell Peacock writes for The Arkansas Times, where a version of this article first appeared. She is also the journalist whose researcher husband managed to keep the ivory-billed woodpecker a secret from her for 14 months.