Comeback Bird

Tales from the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker

During the last week of April, an e-mail zinging through the bird-watcher community spilled the beans on one of the biggest and best-kept secrets in ornithology. It proclaimed that North America’s famed ivory-billed woodpecker was not extinct after all, but Terry Rich of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wasn’t excited. He had heard that story too many times before. Since the last widely accepted sighting in Louisiana in 1944, the bird had become the UFO of ornithology, with spottings claimed occasionally but not persuasively. Logging early in the past century destroyed most of old forests that nurtured the bird in the Southeast. Rich says that he and most other ornithologists had given up hope of finding an ivory-billed.

LOOK CAREFULLY. North America’s other large woodpecker, the pileated (left), which is a few inches shorter than the ivory-billed (right), has no white on its back. AP/Wideworld; Sutton/Cornell
LUCKY STROKE. This view from a video camera fastened to a canoe and left running provides the only recorded image (box) that researchers have identified as an ivory-billed woodpecker. Luneau/Science

On Wednesday night of that week in April, though, Rich got two shocks. In a phone call from a colleague at Cornell University, he learned that there had been several credible sightings of the bird. On top of that, he realized that his Cornell pal, whom he talks to at least once a week, had known about some of the sightings for more than a year but had managed to keep his mouth shut. “The White House should hire these guys,” says Rich.

Cornell ornithologists and their collaborators the next day announced that the journal Science had accepted their paper arguing that seven sightings and a 4-second video—the result of some 7,000 hours of observation—confirmed that at least one ivory-billed woodpecker survives in the swamps of Arkansas. The ivory-billed has been on the endangered species list since March 1967.

Now that the news of the rediscovery is out, the searchers are telling their stories. Looking for an elusive bird in several hundred thousand acres of swamp was difficult enough, but the researchers also worried about what would happen if they found it. First, would anyone believe them? Then, if they did, would delirious birders stampede the habitat? And is the bird in the video the last of its kind or a sign that the species has a future?

Fear and floating

The incredible hulks of the woodpecker world, including the ivory-billed (Campephilus principalis), have risky lifestyles, according to Martjan Lammertink of Amsterdam University in the Netherlands. The ivory-billed ranks among the three most massive woodpecker species, all of which depend, or depended, on old-growth forests for food and shelter.

Lammertink says that he fears that the biggest woodpecker, Mexico’s imperial (Campephilus imperialis), has gone extinct. And the great slaty woodpecker of Indonesia (Mulleripicus pulverulentus pulverulentus) is in serious trouble.

A century ago, the ivory-billed relied on forests of large trees in the southeastern United States. The bird ate primarily the big, plump beetle grubs that grow in still-upright trees that have been dead 2 to 3 years, says Lammertink. In today’s landscape, a pair of birds probably needs 25 to 30 square miles to dine adequately at dead trees, he says.

A stretch of forest that previously raised birders’ hopes lies along Louisiana’s Pearl River. After a persuasive report of a sighting there in 1999, Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology organized a highly publicized search in 2002. But no bird was seen, and the one piece of possible evidence—a recording of what might have been the ivory-billed’s distinctive double knock—turned out to be gunshots (SN: 3/2/02, p. 141: Available to subscribers at Encouraging signs but no woodpecker; 6/22/02, p. 397: Available to subscribers at Oops. Woodpecker raps were actually gunshots).

Eastern Arkansas also boasts remote swamps containing old trees. In February 2004, kayaker Gene Sparling posted on a canoe-club Web site an account of seeing a large woodpecker in a region called the Big Woods. Cornell’s Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine, says that he grilled Sparling about the details and decided that the kayaker “was either hallucinating or he’d seen an ivory-billed woodpecker.”

Gallagher and another long-time woodpecker searcher, Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., persuaded Sparling to lead them into the cypress swamp where he’d seen the bird. At a moment when Sparling had pulled well ahead, a big bird flew toward the second boat.

The bird would probably have landed near the canoe, Gallagher says, if he and Harrison hadn’t both gasped “ivory-billed!” when they saw the characteristic bright-white feathers along the trailing edge of the wings. North America’s other big woodpecker, the pileated, has black feathers there.

Now, it was Gallagher’s turn to prove that he wasn’t hallucinating.


On March 1, 2004, just 3 days after the sighting, Gallagher arrived sleep deprived and agitated at the office of Cornell lab director John Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick recalls that Gallagher looked “as if he had a bad disease.” Nevertheless, Gallagher convinced Fitzpatrick to have the lab mount a search, sending out dozens of bird-watchers at a time. Eventually, Cornell, the Nature Conservancy, and other groups combined into the Big Woods Conservation Partnership to raise millions of dollars for the intensive search and for the purchase of land that wasn’t already protected against development.

Unlike the Louisiana effort, this Arkansas mission was top-secret. Search leaders came up with a cover story that most of them told even to other members of their labs: The disappearing birders were helping the Nature Conservancy survey species and habitat. It was true, although a bit imprecise.

When Lammertink was recruited, however, he needed to be cagier because he had gone looking for big, possibly extinct, woodpeckers twice before. He told his colleagues and most of his family that he was going to a Detroit lab to make a family tree of woodpeckers according to their DNA.

He didn’t have to fib to his wife, though. Forest ecologist Utami Setiorini had worked with him on a study of Indonesia’s great slaty woodpecker, so she joined the search party too.

The group soon had a triumph. The third sighting of an ivory-billed in the Arkansas swamp was April 5, 2004 by Jim Fitzpatrick, John Fitzpatrick’s brother and executive director of the Carpenter/St. Croix Valley Nature Center in Hastings, Minn.

Search coordinators had asked Cornell ecologist Melinda LaBranche, who had done her Ph.D. work on the southern United States’ endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, if she’d fly to Arkansas in 48 hours, telling no one what she was going to do. On the morning of April 10, 2004, despite ominous weather signs, LaBranche was taken by canoe to spend the day looking for the woodpecker in one spot with a long view of a stretch of water. A hard rain started in late morning, so she packed away her camera. “I figured people would come to get me,” she says.

As she sat, a big bird flew toward her from some 100 meters away, flashing white under its wings and moving straight instead of dipping the way a pileated woodpecker does. “I knew it wasn’t anything I’d seen before,” she says. She whipped up her binoculars and followed the bird for some 8 seconds before it disappeared.

She made notes and sketches immediately, not drawing the bird’s head, which she hadn’t looked at carefully. Her cell phone batteries were nearly dead, but she managed a hurried and excited call to her crew leader. “I was a blithering idiot,” she says.

That night, on videotape, the crew interrogated her on the details. When asked how certain she was of the identification, she said 99 percent. Why that 1 percent of doubt? “Because it’s freaking extinct,” she told the others.

Cornell Lab’s Melanie Driscoll had also been spirited away to Arkansas that week. Like LaBranche, Driscoll got assigned to what the searchers called “big sits.” On the day after LaBranche’s sighting, Driscoll settled into a spot deemed too iffy to merit a video camera. Yet at 9:30 a.m., a “big, elegant, black-and-white bird” flew into view, she recalls. She instinctively reached for binoculars rather than her digital camera and, for three complete wing beats, got a good look at the telltale markings. Driscoll wasn’t carrying a phone and sat for 6 hours until she could share the news.

About this time, the crew shifted its focus from getting detailed binocular sightings to videotaping or photographing the bird. LaBranche regularly did quick-draw-video drills in a parking lot. To foil their birders’ instincts to grab binoculars, LaBranche and Driscoll stopped wearing them. During Driscoll’s last stint in Arkansas, she held her camera up at chin level for many hours. At the end of the unfruitful day, it was hard to unbend her fingers, she says.

The best way to videotape the bird would be to keep a camera running all the time, argued the search team’s electrical engineer, David Luneau of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He mounted a camera on his canoe and used a lot of batteries to keep it running. On April 25, 2004, he and his brother-in-law Robert Henderson startled a big bird. Only after it flew into the woods did Luneau remember the camera.

“It was lucky” that he forgot it, he says now. If he had picked up the camera, he probably would have missed the bird and certainly would have introduced motion to complicate the video analysis.

His blurry, 4-second video is so far the only recorded evidence that the ivory-billed woodpecker hasn’t gone extinct. The clip features Henderson’s knee and canoe paddle, with the flash of a black-and-white bird in the background (

By early 2005, searchers had logged only two more sightings of the bird. Luneau’s videotape began to look like the best evidence the team would get. Researchers gathered to analyze it in detail and then submitted a paper. Rumors of the search results reached a member of a birding community who broadcast the news via e-mail. As the story spread rapidly, Science accelerated publication of the report.

The paper, published April 28 online and in the June 3 issue, acknowledges that the video shows just one bird. And it’s possible that all the people who saw an ivory-billed woodpecker saw the same one. Yet John Fitzpatrick says he’d guess that there are more than one ivory-billed woodpecker out there.

Now what?

All the sightings reported in Science took place in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. Since the announcement, several people a day call the refuge to say they’ve seen an ivory-billed woodpecker. One caller said it landed on his boat. Another reported seeing the bird at a backyard feeder.

Those birds are almost certainly the more common and humanity-tolerant pileated woodpeckers, says refuge spokeswoman Connie Dickard, but she takes it as a good sign that the refuge’s neighbors are interested.

Whether crowds of more-serious birders will flock to Arkansas remains an open, much-discussed question. At the press conference in Washington, D.C., announcing the find, Interior Secretary Gale Norton pleaded, “Don’t love the bird to death.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has closed about 5,000 acres around the sighting spots to everyone but a few researchers. Yet there’s still plenty of accessible public land nearby, and the wildlife managers have designated several observation spots. However, birders are forbidden from playing old recorded ivory-billed calls in an attempt to trick one of the birds into appearing

“From what I can gather from talking to others, most birders are excited about the news but have no plans to go to Arkansas, realizing the precarious position the birds are in,” says Georgia birder Steve Calver.

The bird is a “symbol of wilderness,” says another birder, Parrie Pinyan of Canton, Ga. “I don’t really need to see it or photograph it. I just need to know it is there.”

Some fraction of birders, though, may feel differently. The refuge has had inquiries from potential visitors from around the country as well as from Spain, Norway, and Japan.

Four days after the announcement of a living ivory-billed, one of the main organizers of birding tours, Victor Emanuel of Austin, Texas, said birders were already asking whether he had plans to guide groups in Arkansas. “No,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any visitation unless it’s absolutely certain that it wouldn’t endanger the bird.”

One birder, who asked not to be identified, said that although he’s “conflicted,” his friends talked him into taking off work and heading to the open areas near the sighting spots. “It’s too exciting not to go,” he says. “We know our chances are less than 1 percent, but from my office … my chances are zero.”

David Sibley of Concord, Mass., author of a series of birding books, went to Arkansas a week after the announcement. In 7 days of hiking there, he didn’t catch a sign of the woodpecker but saw rare Swainson’s warblers, a black bear, a bobcat, and a hair salon advertising “woodpecker haircuts.”

Several years ago, he hadn’t included the ivory-billed in his field guide, so the day after the announcement, he posted a downloadable ivory-billed entry onto his Web site. He used a bird painting he’d done for a magazine article and tweaked the text that had run with it, for example, removing the phrase “probably extinct.”

“The big message [today] is that the woodpecker is surviving in Arkansas because of all the preserved land,” says Sibley. Conservationists have been working since the 1980s to preserve Arkansas’ Big Woods, a half-million acres of bottomland hardwood forest. The land where the woodpecker turned up had been acquired by the Nature Conservancy, which in 1986 transferred 380 acres to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to start a refuge of cypress and tupelo swamps that are home to several endangered species.

The importance of habitat preservation is dramatically illustrated by many Hawaiian birds, says wildlife biologist Donna Ball, based in Hilo for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For example, on her watch, the population of Hawaiian crows in the wild collapsed from 12 to 0, despite success breeding the birds in captivity and placing them in the forest.

“If you’re just releasing [captive-bred birds] back into the same black hole they’re collapsing from, you’re throwing money into the wind and throwing away some valuable animals, too,” Ball says.

More optimistically, Lammertink brings up the black robin of New Zealand. In 1979, only five birds remained. One female, nicknamed Old Blue and now a national heroine memorialized in children’s books, laid eggs in captivity, and conservationists found safe habitats for her offspring on two islands.

The birds are vulnerable because of their low genetic diversity and other factors, says Hilary Aikman of the Wellington Conservancy of New Zealand. Yet the adult black robin population has grown to about 200.

On the other hand, the time to think about protecting a species should come well before its population has shrunk drastically, says Kenn Kaufman of Tucson, who has written field guides to North American birds. Kaufman says, “It would be great if the excitement over the ivory-billed woodpecker got more people thinking about the natural diversity around them.”

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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