Features

Lost and found

Environment | Reports of a famous bird's demise were greatly exaggerated

Issue: "Senate wars over judges," May 14, 2005

Deep in the swamps of the bottomland forest of northern Arkansas, a jet-black woodpecker with a three-foot wingspan and an ivory-colored bill changed Timothy Gallagher's life. It had been 61 years since the last confirmed sighting of one the largest woodpeckers in the world, and most ornithologists considered the Ivory-billed Woodpecker extinct. When the enigmatic creature swooped 70 feet in front of Mr. Gallagher's canoe on a February morning in 2004, he and other Cornell University ornithologists changed their minds. After a year of intense searching that yielded six separate sightings and a four-second video of a male Ivory-billed Woodpecker landing on a tupelo tree, scientists announced to the world last month that the lost bird had been found.

Mr. Gallagher told WORLD that rediscovering the woodpecker was like "finding the holy grail of birds." He had been working on a book about the elusive woodpecker called "The Grail Bird" when a tip from a kayaker led him and a colleague to the 65,000-acre Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in the Big Woods region of Arkansas. As they paddled between cypress trees rooted below the murky water, the men laid eyes on the legendary woodpecker that they had only seen in pictures. "We just about fell out of our canoe," said Mr. Gallagher.

The bird had all the marks of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker: a red crest, a black body, a white stripe down the side of its head and extending down its back, a length of more than 19 inches, and, of course, an ivory-hued bill.

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Researchers from several universities and The Nature Conservancy joined a team from Cornell that spent more than 7,000 hours scouring the bayou for more sightings. David Luneau from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock hit the ornithological jackpot when he captured the bird on film for a few seconds. The team published its findings in the journal Science on April 28.

Reactions varied. Frank Gill of the Audubon Society called the discovery "truly, truly huge . . . kind of like finding Elvis." Frank Sherwin, a scientist with the Institute for Creation Research, spoke of "giving credit and glory to the Creator for the majesty of His creation." Carter Roberts of the World Wildlife Fund called the find "monumental." The discovery sparked hope that other "extinct" species may be found, and also a logical question: How did the largest woodpecker in the United States elude researchers for more than six decades?

According to Mr. Gallagher, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was once a signature bird of the Southeast, living in wooded habitats from Texas to North Carolina. But when loggers felled millions of acres of hardwoods for the lumber industry after the Civil War, the woodpeckers began to disappear. Mr. Gallagher added that bird "collectors" at the turn of the century contributed to the woodpeckers' decline. "Some people collected them like rare stamps," he said. Hunting the birds is now strictly prohibited, and the regrowth of forests over the last hundred years, often for commercial reasons, is giving many species new life.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is now the flagship of the Big Conservation program, an effort to preserve some 200,000 acres of Arkansas woodlands over the next decade. The same day that the Cornell team announced its findings, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it would commit some $10 million toward protecting the bird's habitat.

A department spokesman said the money would go toward preserving the land and searching for more birds, but it's not clear whether the appropriation will actually help the species. Researchers admit that they may have observed the same bird during several sightings, and do not know if pairs of birds still exist.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD.

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