Thursday, November 03, 2005

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Update, and Talk by Tim Gallagher

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Most of us will likely never lay eyes on an ivory-billed woodpecker, the magnificent bird that was presumed extinct for sixty years and then rediscovered in 2004.

Tim Gallagher has. He is the author of The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and he’ll be in Champaign tomorrow to give a public talk.

Gallagher was one of the three highly credible witnesses who went into an Arkansas bayou in February 2004 looking for an ivory-bill and saw one. Their sighting led to fourteen months of highly secretive, intensive searching, which resulted in six more sightings and a few seconds of compelling video footage before the story was made public this past April. Since then, painstaking analysis of audio recordings made in the search area has provided even further proof that the ivory-bill lives.

Part of what makes the news about the ivory-bill so exciting is that it is such a cool bird. At approximately twenty inches long and with a wingspan of thirty-three inches, the ivory-bill is North America’s largest woodpecker, notably bigger than the pileated woodpecker, its widespread and relatively common cousin. The ivory-bill’s body has been described as coal black, and it sports extensive white patches on its wings, along with a lightening-bolt shaped white stripe on each side. The ivory-bill’s tall crest, with its slight forward curve is black on females, and blood red on males. Both male and female birds display a brilliant yellow eye and the three-inch-long, chisel shaped, ivory colored bill that gives this bird its name.

Prior to European settlement, ivory-bills inhabited the vast bottomland forests of the American south, from the Atlantic to Texas and Oklahoma, with the northern boundary of its range extending into southern Illinois and Indiana. As these ancient forests were destroyed over the past two hundred years, the ivory-bill declined, with sightings in the twentieth century concentrated in old growth remnants, especially in Florida and Louisiana.

The rediscovery of the ivory-bill in the place where it was found represents a victory for everyone interested in the preservation and restoration of wildlife habitat. The Arkansas bird was sighted in a national wildlife refuge in an area targeted for further conservation by the Nature Conservancy and the state because it represents a unique habitat, the southern bottomland forest, now nearly gone.

Writing for the New York Times this spring, James Gorman articulated well the role of conservation efforts in the ivory-bill’s astonishing comeback. He wrote, “It wasn’t a miracle. It wasn’t luck. And it wasn’t simply the resilience of nature, although that helped. The reason for the astonishing re-emergence of a mysterious bird is as mundane as can be. It is habitat preservation, achieved by hard, tedious work, like lobbying, legislating, and fundraising.”

Could the ongoing restoration of swamps and floodplain forests in southern Illinois bring the ivory-bill back to our state? It’s a long shot. But the ivory-bill’s re-emergence in Arkansas provides us a glimmer of hope, and a reason to redouble our own efforts to protect and restore wild places.

If you would like hear the latest on the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker from someone who has been at the center of it, come to the talk by Tim Gallagher tomorrow, Friday, November 4th. He’ll be speaking at 4:00 p.m. in Room D of the Law Building on the U of I campus in Champaign.