Thursday, June 02, 2005

Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

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Have you ever gotten a bit of news that’s so good and that you’ve wanted to hear so badly that it keeps popping back into your head for weeks after you first hear it? That’s how I and a lot of other birders have been feeling since a team of searchers in Arkansas announced last month that the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct. After sixty-one years without a confirmed sighting we get to put a bird back into the field guides--the ivory-bill lives!

Between January 2004 and spring of this year reliable witnesses saw a male ivory-bill seven times, and heard it on a number of other occasions. The team even managed to get a short video of the bird. The footage, which was taken with a camera mounted on a canoe, is grainy and unfocused, but it is compelling enough to dispel doubt even among the most skeptical ornithologists.

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, James Gorman articulates well the role of conservation efforts in the ivory-bill’s astonishing comeback. He writes, “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.