Is the Ivory-billed
By Chester Moore, Jr.
Biologists and birding experts have long thought
ivory bills disappeared with much of the virgin hardwood forests of the
Southern United States. But now, there may be reason to believe a few
of these mysterious birds have survived into the 21st century.
Just last year, college student David Kulivan claims to have seen a
pair of ivory-bills while turkey hunting in the Pearl Wildlife
Management Area (WMA) in Southwest Louisiana.
"I knew as soon as I spotted them they were something I had never seen
before. Everyone says these birds look like pileated woodpeckers and
they do to an extent, but I got a close view of these birds and they
were not the pileated. These birds were ivory-billed woodpeckers,"
Kulivan told state and federal officials.
His statements have been examined and critiqued by dozens of experts
and the general consensus is either he did see ivory bills or went to
great trouble to convince others he did. His descriptions of their
plumage and body shape included details not available in most fields
Standing alone Kulivan's story offers nothing more than fuel for those
intent on proving the existence of the birds. The actions of federal
and state wildlife officials however shows there may be something far
more significant going on in the deep bottomlands of southern Louisiana.
Shortly after the alleged sightings, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
(Service) officials shut down logging in the area under auspices of the
highly controversial Endangered Species Act.
In the past, millions of acres of forests in the Pacific Northwest
region have been shut down because of the presence of the endangered
spotted owl, but this is the first time in history economic progress
has been halted because of a supposedly extinct bird.
The key word here is "supposedly" because Service officials have not
yet deemed the ivory-bill as extinct. They're still listed as an
endangered species and are given equal legal protection as disappearing
animals like the spotted owl and Florida Panther.
"We've been getting quite a few reports and we're not ready to discount
them. There could be something to them," said Debbie Fuller, an
endangered species biologist with the Service.
Officials with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
(LDWF) have also showed an unusual amount of interest in the birds.
In the face of a $9 million budget shortfall last year, LDWF biologists
made numerous excursions into the Pearl River WMA to look for the birds
and set up automated video cameras near trees woodpeckers have damaged.
During this time, game wardens had to sit home because the LDWF
couldn't afford to buy gasoline for their patrol vehicles. Numerous
public hunting lands were shut down and license fees for resident and
nonresident hunters and fishermen were nearly doubled.
"It's very strange for a fish and game department that is caters so
much to sportsmen to spend a lot of money looking for a bird that is
supposed to be extinct, especially when they department is millions of
dollars in debt. There's more going on than meets the eye," said an
anonymous LDWF official.
The LDWF scientists who put out these cameras said they expected to
find the common and closely related pileated woodpecker at the site,
but they didn't show up either. This gave birders a real ray of hope
since pileated are common in the area and have proven elusive also.
One such birder is writing teacher Christopher Cokinos of Kansas State
University. He believes Kulivans's story could very well be true. He
has just authored a book about the demise of U.S. birds entitled "Hope
is the Thing with Feathers" and said he hopes ivory-bills still exist
in the Pearl WMA area.
"These birds require vast, old forest and if there is any area in their
native range where they could still exist it would be the Pearl area.
That place is still pretty remote. These birds were never abundant
according to historical records and hopefully there are still a few
around," Cokinos said.
Part of the reason for his optimism is that ivory bills were discovered
in Cuba in the 1980s, long after they were though extinct throughout
"No one had seen the birds there for a long time and they popped up in
the 80s. Many scientists declared them extinct there by 1995, but they
could've just missed them," Cokinos said.
Whether or not current research into this mystery is fruitful may end
up being irrelevant in the end according to Cokinos.
"It sure would be something for these birds to still exist. But at
least with all of this talk about ivory-billed woodpeckers they've got
us talking about the problems facing birds. That may end up being the
important discovery here."
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