The Anomalist


Is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Extnct?
Part 1

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 guides.

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 (by mcsweeney at tforge). 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 their range.

"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."

Go to Part 2

Copyright 2001