Friday, April 29, 2005

"Deep Enough for Ivory Bills"

With all the news that is fit to print, it seems we are rarely regaled with a story of hope and inspiration. That is not the case today, today we learned the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is still with us. This news may mean little to many people, but it is nothing short of earth-shattering for many amateur birders and ornithologists alike.

Photo circa 1930s linked from Cornell University's Ivory-bill pages

Cornell's awesome Ivory Bill pages are here

The last reliable sighting of an Ivory-bill in North America occured in 1948 at the Singer tract, an old-growth forest in the bottomlands of Louisiana. The last expedition to photograph and document the bird happened before my father was born, and when my grandfather was only 27 years old, in 1935. The bird was already known as being very dispersed, requiring 16 square kilometers per breeding pair.

For as long as I've been interested in birds, the Ivory-bill has always been mentioned in studies as a bird that was probably extinct. Numerous eyewitness sightings have occured over the years in places like Louisiana, Florida and even Cuba, but they were never substantiated with hard evidence. My feeling now is that there are probably Ivory-bill populations, even if miniscule, in some of those areas where hunters and others have reported seeing them.

After this confirmed sighting in Arkansas by a kayaker and amatuer birder, much secrecy surrounded the investigation by Cornell and the Nature Conservancy, and for good reason. If information about the bird had leaked, no doubt thousands of birding pilgrims would be on the steps of the Cache River and White River National Wildlife Refuges in Arkansas, looking to add the Ivory-bill to their life-list. Still, two reasearchers spotted the bird on the second day of their excursion, and several others later saw the bird. Videotape of the woodpecker, although short and blurry, was also captured.

The Ivory-bill was a ghost, a phantom, a bird sighted over the years by locals and hunters, but never substantied with hard evidence. I'm sure some reports were treated very skeptically, maybe too skeptically. Its legend and aura, starting with its impressive size (one of the largest woodpeckers in North America, and one of the largest on the planet) and the penchant the native Americans had for Ivory-bill remnants, traded all the way into the northern territories, served to make the bird a cryptozoologic enigma.

Today it seems that maybe a few of those folks that saw the bird weren't crazy after all! If we see and substantiate a sighting of the Ivory-bill today, it makes obvious the fact that there were birds that survived, bred and procreated between the time of the last reliable sightings and today. In other words, they've been there all along.

I hope that we can preserve some habitat for this amazing woodpecker, and that it may continue to inhabit our forests. The news today that the Ivory-bill is not dead is nothing short of incredible.

Post script: The title of the thread refers to a novel written by South Carolinian James Kilgo about his experiences hunting and spending time in the natural world, and once going deep enough to hear the misanthropic sounds of the Ivory-bill in the deep woods of South Carolina...


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