The Anomalist


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Is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Extnct?
Part 2

Chester Moore, Jr.

Beginning Jan. 17, 2002, experts from the United States, Canada and Indonesia will spend 30 days combing 35,000 acres of remote Louisiana timber in search of the ivorybilled woodpecker. They'll be using sophisticated video and audio detection and recording equipment in hopes of proving that the majestic woodpecker (which is believed to have went extinct in the United States 30 years ago) still exists.

As we reported in Part 1 of this story in 2000, a sharp-eyed forestry student reported spotting a pair of ivorybills in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area north of New Orleans. There had been numerous hoaxes and false alarms before. But the forestry student had been so precise in his description that experts said there could be little doubt he had seen the phantom bird of the southern bottomlands.The report was so convincing in fact it spawned a research project by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) and caused the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to shut down logging in the area.

It also spawned an aerial and foot survey of the area by LDWF officials. This survey was made in a year the LDWF faced a $9 million budget shortfall. Game wardens in some parishes couldn't patrol because LDWF's law enforcement division couldn't afford to pay for gas. In other words there was something to the sighting.

That sighting by the way also prompted Zeiss Optics to sponsor the upcoming expedition and mainstream publications like the Washington Post and The New Yorker to do major features about the species.

Birders are hopeful evidence to support the existence of the species will be found on this expedition, but they shouldn't get their hopes up. These birds were never common or easy to find even 100 years ago.

An 1898 Bird magazine article I found while researching the species backs up this assertion:"The Ivory-billed is now rare, and is apparently restricted to the extreme southern states, especially those bordering the Gulf of Mexico. It is of a wild and wary disposition, making its home in the dark, swampy woodlands. The dense cypress swamps of Florida are one of its favorite haunts.

"The nest of the ivorybill is excavated in a tree, about forty feet from the ground, the cavity often being nearly two feet in depth. Three or more eggs are laid.

"This bird does not remain long in one place, and during the day ranges over an extended territory. Its call is a high, rather nasal, yap-yap-yap, sounding in the distance like the note of a penny trumpet.

"The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, living his almost solitary life in the vast and nearly impenetrable cypress swamps, at a height of forty and fifty feet from the ground, is rarely seen by man."

Fast-forward 104 years and it's easy to see how difficult finding representatives of this possibly extinct species will be. I'm concerned if this expedition fails science will finally close the door on the ivorybills case and dismiss future sightings, no matter how reliable.

I can see the headlines now "Expedition proves ivorybill truly extinct." Many mainstream scientists will spew quotes like "If there were ivorybills left they would've been found." "The search is over and we can now call the ivorybill extinct."

I wholeheartedly support the expedition and would love to be one of the researchers participating, but a failure doesn't mean hope is gone for the species or should I say for birders and wildlife enthusiasts who hope a few of the beautiful birds are still around.

My own quest has been to photograph the similar (in both physical appearance and habits) pileated woodpecker. But Iíve been unsuccessful in more than a decade of trying to capture a magazine cover quality photo of one of the shy birds. In fact while armed with a camera I've rarely gotten within 100 yards of one. I should note that at that distance it would be very difficult to tell an ivorybill from a pileated.

If ivorybills still exist, I wonder how many field biologists, birders and hunters have passed them off as pileated? After all, running into an ivorybill isn't the driving force behind most people entering the woods. It's hard to find something if you're not looking for it or at least mindful of its existence.

Birder Chris Geraghty has made similar conclusions after excursions into the field: "In our team's experience, we could not get within 200 yards of any pileated woodpecker. We could hear plenty of them, but seeing them was difficult. One of the reasons for not seeing them is due to the amount of noise created when walking in that habitat.

"Most of the time," Geraghty wrote on a Web site dedicated to the pursuit of ivorybills, ěthere are leaves rustling and twigs snapping. To actually find an ivorybill by simply walking through this area would be difficult. I stress this area because it is a hunter's ground and birds are not behaving in their normal way. They are extra wary."

Instead of concentrating on one area it might be more productive to look at other areas in the South with suitable habitat. Ivorybills require virgin or very mature stands of timber where certain species of grubs and other insects are present. I'm in the process of contacting forestry bureaus, biologists, hunting clubs and landowners to try and create a database of habitat that could potentially house ivorybills. This could be useful to birders trying to capture a photo or make a recording of any ivorybills that might be left in the South.

I live a few miles from one such area in East Texas. It's a remote hardwood bottomland that was last logged in the early 1900s and is rarely explored except by a few duck hunters. It contains thousands of acres of mature bottomland and is within easy flying distance of a couple of other smaller stands of mature bottomland timber.

I'm not saying there are any ivorybills in there. In fact, as far as I know, no one has ever reported them being there, but you can bet I will go take a look and listen. More importantly though when considering this area as potential habitat it opens the door to numerous other areas in the South possibly serving as refuge to ivorybills. Remember science knows very little about the species, so limiting their possible range to the Pearl River WMA is counterproductive to the true pursuit of the species.

Time may have indeed already run out on the ivorybill but we should remember the species has already proven science wrong once before. In the 1980s researchers discovered a few of the Cuban subspecies where they were supposed to have disappeared years before.

When looking at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service database of endangered species it looks as if the species is still around. They're listed as "endangered," not extinct. Texas, Louisiana, Florida and several other states also list the ivorybill as "endangered" under state law.

The dodo bird isn't listed as endangered. Neither is the carrier pigeon if you catch my drift. Hope is still alive at the highest levels.

Maybe in 2002 the ivorybilled woodpecker can prove science wrong once again. And with that said let us wish good luck to the researchers hitting the field Jan. 17. They're going to need it.

Chester Moore is an award-winning writer, photographer and naturalist from Texas. He won an "Excellence in Craft Award" from the Texas Outdoor Writers Association for an article written about the ivorybilled woodpecker last year. You can e-mail him or check out the ivorybill page of his Web site.

Copyright 2002