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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

In Search Of: The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

Air Date: Week of

Despite the accepted belief among scientists that the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct, avid bird enthusiasts continue to search for the species among southern U.S. swamps and bogs. In this documentary report produced by Brenda Tremblay, we visit with hopeful birdwatchers searching for their aviary Holy Grail.


CURWOOD: For most ornithologists the book is closed on the ivory-billed woodpecker. The last of North America's largest woodpeckers are thought to have disappeared from the United States and Cuba during the 1980s, and this year the conservation group The Nature Conservancy declared the bird extinct. But the ivory bill specter haunts hundreds of professional and amateur bird watchers. They refuse to give up hope that an isolated population of the pterodactyl-like birds with 3-foot wingspans might be hanging onto life deep in some Southern swamp. Driven by her own fascination with the woodpecker, producer Brenda Tremblay traveled to Mississippi's Delta National Forest to search for the ivory bill, and to explore the culture of those who've made it their holy grail.

(Water trickling. Cellos and double basses play, then a bird call.)

TREMBLAY: I hardly know where to begin this story, a story that's part fable, part science lesson, and part obsession. I suppose it began when I first saw a picture of a bird in a book. The picture got into my head. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I even dreamed about it. Months went by and I was still fixed by its image. Finally, I decided to drive to Mississippi to look for it.

ALEXANDER: Pelicans. Were there any pelicans in Mississippi?

HEYEN: I cannot find my daily bread for sale in this beribboned mall thronged with the polymer sound of generic birds on plastic limbs in plastic trees. I need to fathom what I'll need to buy.

JAMES: Like all other groups of birds that are endangered and becoming extinct, it's always the largest one that's most endangered like the whooping crane, the largest crane; the trumpeter swan, the largest swan the ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker.

BUDNEY: The ivory billed woodpecker was probably not a bird that was following such a narrow path that it was doomed to extinction. In all likelihood it has to do with human manipulation of the habitat.

TURCOTT: Well, you know what the Holy Grail is, don't you? It's when you go out seeking something that's maybe not possible or not there, but you still go out to see if it's possible (laughs).

(Music continues, followed by the whoosh of traffic)

TREMBLAY: Highway 82 passes by the fast food joints, cheap motels, and corrugated metal buildings of Greenville, Mississippi, and through the fertile cotton and soybean fields of the Mississippi Delta. It's another 20 miles to the Delta National Forest. Here I met Jerry Jackson, a professor of biological sciences at Mississippi State University. For years, Jackson has been searching the southeastern United States for what he and others call the Lord God bird.

JACKSON: And it's the Lord God bird I'm sure, because when people would see the woodpecker they would say, "Lord God, what a woodpecker!" And it's referring to its size; it's an incredibly large bird. It's a woodpecker with a 3-foot wingspan, the size of a crow or slightly larger.

TREMBLAY: The ivory-billed woodpecker is, or perhaps was, a magnificent bird. But not in the same way that a large hawk or eagle is magnificent. The ivory bill has a prehistoric aspect. It's pterodactyl shaped, otherworldly, with a stark color combination of red, black and white and light colored eyes. It is an unforgettable image that keeps people searching despite the odds.

JACKSON: There are some real fanatics out there that are really so, so anxious to find an ivory-billed woodpecker. There is a young doctor who is now stationed in Hawaii who came to my office and spent some time with me, who has all of the literature on ivory-billed woodpeckers, who knows everything there is to know about them, and who's continually looking for them. There's a lawyer in Texas who put up a bounty of $1,000 and plastered placards advertising his willingness to pay $1,000 for evidence that there are ivory-billed woodpeckers. There are people out there who are very serious in their intent to find ivory bills and who are very serious when they say that they think that they exist.

ALEXANDER: Okay, let's start the tally. Now what I'm going to do, I'm going to call out the species, and if the people in Mississippi saw the bird, I'm going to write it down. If we have some birds that were seen in Arkansas and not in Mississippi I would like to put an asterisk by the species.

TREMBLAY: The Mississippi Ornithological Society meets every few months to look for birds and commune over catfish dinner. The ivory-billed woodpecker was crossed off their lists a long time ago, but there are some old timers in the group who remember the days of rare sightings, and still tell stories of tantalizing encounters. Bill Turcott used to work for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

(A room full of people talking)

TURCOTT: The place was teeming with woodpeckers, a lot of pileateds in there. Of course we never saw anything we considered an ivory bill. But on the last day of the second trip that we made up there, I pulled out off of this road that borders the lower part of the bluff, at a little overlook, overlooking the swamp out there, and I got out and played the ivory bill tape one more time. Well I was sitting there, you know, with my feet on the ground and the car door open, and Al was up behind me up here, and I swear I heard twice the ivory bill call. Twice, just as plain as day. Then I stood up and looked back and hear this barn owl that I called out of this big cottonwood there on the bluff, and across there were 3 bluejays behind it. A bluejay can imitate just about anything he wants to imitate, and I heard what I consider to be bluejays making that call, because there was no possibility for an ivory bill on the other side. Because at the top of the bluff it was open pasture.

(A man's intro: "Ivory-billed woodpecker, Cornell catalogue, cut one." The ivory-billed woodpecker's call follows, on a scratchy tape recording.)

TREMBLAY: There is only one recording of the ivory-billed woodpecker, made in the 1930s. It was made in the Singer tract, an 80,000-acre tract of hardwood forest in north central Louisiana. Greg Budney is the curator of the Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.

BUDNEY: They realized in 1935 that the ivory-billed woodpecker was likely to become extinct. That the numbers of birds were very low and they wanted to make sure that its voice was documented. It was a joint expedition between Cornell and the American Museum, and I believe it was funded by the National Geographic Society.

(The bird call continues)

BUDNEY: I would just say how lucky they were that Arthur Allen, James Tanner, Peter Paul Kellogg had the foresight to record this animal, to go to the lengths that they went to, to record the ivory-billed woodpecker. What a great thing to be able to hear. For me, nothing like sound takes you back to a place or time. It's essentially unreduced in dimension; we're listening to what they listened to, and that's exciting and helps communicate to us what the loss of a creature like an ivory-billed woodpecker is, as we sit and listen to that recording and think that if we walk through the swamps of the South, we're not going to hear that again in all likelihood.

(The bird call continues, followed by a locomotive engine)

BUDNEY: Following the Civil War, much of the lands of the Southeast reverted to Federal ownership, simply because the people of the South were so poor that they couldn't afford to pay the taxes on the lands. And by the late 1870s, early 1880s, this had grown to crisis proportions and Southern senators and representatives were lobbying in Congress trying to get those Federal lands sold so the lands could go back on the tax base. So the lands were sold, and they went to the lumber companies of the North. Special railroads were built going out of Chicago, coming to the South to bring land buyers to the South. And the virgin pine forests of the Southeast sold for a dollar and a quarter an acre.

(Locomotive engine continues)

TREMBLAY: Nobody knows all the reasons why the bird has disappeared. By the time scientists began to study causes of its decline, there were hardly enough birds left to research.

(March music plays)

TREMBLAY: In 1935, ornithologist James Tanner began a study of the few ivory bills left in the Singer tract.

BUDNY: But then World War II broke out, and during the war, if something is being done in our national interest then it has to be okay. And we needed timber. We needed wood for pallets to put the shells on that were being shipped overseas. And the Singer tract in Louisiana, owned by the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, was a tract of forest that as far as those lumber men were concerned needed to be cut for the war effort. It was the patriotic thing to do. Unfortunately, that was where the last of the ivory-billed woodpeckers lived. But we couldn't be concerned about them; there was a war going on.

TREMBLAY: For more than 30 years after the war, people searched for and fantasized about finding the ivory-billed woodpecker in the remote swamps of the United States. In 1969, 2 amateur naturalists claimed to have seen ivory bills in central Florida. Ornithologists who investigated their claim found nothing. On March 14, 1971, a member of the Audubon Society played the tape recording of ivory-billed woodpeckers and heard a response in the Santee Swamp of South Carolina. No one saw the bird there, either. Six months later, Dr. George Lowry, Jr., a well-respected ornithologist, reported that a bird watcher in Louisiana had photographed ivory-billed woodpeckers in May of 1971. Lowry believed the photographs were authentic, but no birds were ever found. The latest sightings were reported in the 1980s in Cuba. Lured by the possibility of photographing the last ivory bills left, the National Geographic Society hired Jerry Jackson to lead an expedition there.

JACKSON: Well I can tell you the minute. It was 9:32 AM on the morning of March 4th, 1988. How's that for being excited about it. I had spotted this place on the first day that I was there, that I could overlook and see some dead trees that looked like they had woodpecker work, and that's where we're going to see them. And I went back to that spot. That was about 3 weeks later. I was sitting there early in the morning, and this woodpecker -- I had my 400 millimeter lens focused on the dead trees about 300 feet in front of me, and this woodpecker, or what I believe was the ivory bill flew past 30 feet in front of me. And it was zip, right by. It was gone.

TREMBLAY: Jerry Jackson may well have been one of the last people to see an ivory-billed woodpecker, but he didn't get a picture. Intense surveys of Cuban forests in 1991 and 1993 proved fruitless. A few years ago, the US Fish and Wildlife Service called a meeting of 3 ornithologists: Lester Short, James Tanner, and Jerry Jackson. They sought their endorsement of the Service's decision to declare the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct.

JACKSON: I don't really know why, except that I think they just wanted to be able to cross it off their list and not have to worry about it any more. I guess I was the fly in the ointment of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and in response they decided that yeah, they really might look bad if they declared it extinct and someone found the birds. And so the Fish and Wildlife Service funded a one-year study to examine those areas in the Southeast that offered the best hope for there still being ivory bills. And I was given the contract to spend a year looking for ivory bills. Well, I stretched that amount of money; I got no more money but I stretched it into 2 years. And actually it's been many years, because I've continued to go back and go back and go back.

(The ivory bill call plays)

TREMBLAY: Jackson plays the same tape made in the Singer tract in the 1930s, hoping for a response and hearing only echoes, mimics, and phantoms.

(The call continues. The tape is turned off. A woman and child speak to Jackson. )

WOMAN: So then you would wait?

JACKSON: Yeah, we play it for -- that's a red belly responding to the red belly on the tape. See, the birds do respond. There's another red belly. (Speaking to Tremblay) We were in an area, in fact not very far from here. It's only about 5 miles from here. And we had been doing surveys, transects, through the forest, playing this recording of an ivory-billed woodpecker for 45 seconds and listening for 3 minutes and then moving 15 minutes and doing it again. And I came to a place where the trees were incredibly large. And I played the tape; I told my graduate student, "This is by far the best habitat I've seen anywhere." And no response. And so we started to move on, and my graduate student says, "Wait, there it is! There it is!" And I said, "I don't hear anything." He said, "No, it's coming closer. It's coming closer!" And we just stood there. And finally I heard it, and it was a bird repeating what we had just played about 3 minutes before on the tape. And it kept coming closer and closer and closer until it got about maybe 100 yards from us. And then it stopped where it was, but it called repeatedly from there for several minutes. And it wasn't coming closer, and so I said, "On three, we're just going to have to rush toward it and hope we can get a photo." And we did, we ran, and didn't see a thing.

(The birdcall tape plays)

JACKSON: Everything in me that's a scientist says it's not at all likely that there are any ivory-bills left. But as a human being and as an individual that likes to think positive, I'd like to hope that maybe, just maybe out there, there is a pocket of ivory bills still left.

SHORT: I think he's mistaken about it. I think he's an incurable optimist, I'll say that about Jerry, which is great. But I'm too much of a realist.

TREMBLAY: Lester Short is the Lamont Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History. He's one of the world's leading experts on woodpeckers. Like Jackson, Short caught fleeting glimpses of ivory bills in Cuba in the late 1980s, but he thinks the birds he saw were part of a doomed population, and he's convinced there are none left in the United States.

SHORT: When you think of the mobility of the bird watchers in the United States and the terrific number of them, and the many people who've become interested in birds, hunters and others who go into the back country, and the fact that the birds need to have a place to breed, if they produce young the young have to move away from the parents. And these are big birds that are conspicuous. So I don't think that any place, you know, that can be so remote from people that they could be hanging on and not be seen over the years.

TREMBLAY: But is the ivory-billed woodpecker really extinct? Could there be an undiscovered pair in some deep Southern swamp, in the remote forests of South Carolina, or in the Florida panhandle?

JAMES: Hope springs eternal; sometimes you have to face reality. (Laughs)

TREMBLAY: Douglas James is a professor of biology and ornithologist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, in the upper regions of the ivory bill's former habitat. Though he believes the ivory bill's demise was hastened by man's interference, James says its extinction may have been fated from the very beginning.

JAMES: And like all other groups of birds that are endangered and becoming extinct, it's always the largest one that's most endangered. Like the whooping crane, the largest crane; the trumpeter swan, the largest swan; the ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker. And this has been going on for millions of years since Pleistocene age and geological age. I see it as sort of a continuation of a process that's been going on for several million years

TREMBLAY: Greg Budney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology disagrees.

BUDNEY: The ivory-billed woodpecker was probably not a bird that was following such a narrow path that it was doomed to extinction. In all likelihood it has to do with human manipulation of the habitat. The loss of the ivory-billed woodpecker is an indication that something has changed in a substantial way in the environment. So it was an indicator, an indicator of the integrity of a habitat and when you lose that, it's a signal, it's a sign that should direct our attention to look at what impacts, what pressures are occurring in this particular habitat to cause this animal to disappear.

(The ivory-billed woodpecker call on tape plays)

HEYEN: I don't know where I saw it first, maybe in a Peterson's or maybe in some other bird book, a picture of the ivory bill and it's a sharp, vivid image in my mind, and of course representative of so much now that we've lost.

TREMBLAY: William Heyen is a poet and professor at the State University of New York in Brockport. In his collection of poems Pterodactyl Rose, Heyen wrote about endangered and extinct species, including the ivory-billed woodpecker.

HEYEN: But when I ate the dodo, I could not ingest its gentleness and trust. Genes lost voyages ago, sometimes seem to snag in my human heart. Eidolons of Easters past. But passenger pigeons' eggs wink in a vanished series. And the ivory-billed cries in the vacuum of its skies not at all.

(The bird call continues)

HEYEN: You know, I was brought up on Long Island, and in the center of the island when my boyhood was all ponds and woods. And now I return and I see what has happened to the places where I once had my imagination and I had my being. And all of us have this story in us; I mean this is an American story.

(Cello and double bass music continues)

TREMBLAY: We don't want the story to be true. Jerry Jackson and the others who still search want this story to end differently.

JACKSON: Sometimes I'm looked at a little bit askance: hey, you're crazy, fella. Or with a little bit of disbelief that, you believe there might still be ivory-billed woodpeckers; how about the trolls under the bridge, too?

TREMBLAY: Do you doubt yourself sometimes?

JACKSON: No. I guess that's part of being successful and part of being a scientist. If I doubted myself I wouldn't be out here looking for them, wading through the chiggers and the ticks and the snakes in the water.



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