Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Elusive Hope

web_plate-66-ivory-billed-woodpeck-finalFor Lost Species Day, I write whether the ivory-billed woodpecker of the Southern forests was still alive or not. What is the wisdom this bird could offer people.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)

In 2004, news broke that the nearly extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker was sighted by a kayaker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge of Arkansas. As this electrifying news spread, everyone wanted to go there to see the “Lord God Bird”. But, after a few tantalizing glimpses, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker became elusive again. Meanwhile, naturalists began sighting this bird in the panhandle of Florida and in South Carolina. Frustrating to scientists was that no clear photos or nests were ever presented by anyone.

Once plentiful in the Southeastern U.S., Mexico, and Cuba, Ivory-billed Woodpecker gradually disappeared as the old growth Cypress trees were cut down. By the 1940s, many naturalists regarded this bird extinct. However people still reported hearing its loud drumming, and continued to find various feathers of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Moreover, many field guides still featured this bird.

Then, in 1986, a group of naturalists searched the jungles of Cuba for Ivory-billed Woodpecker. One of the expert birders, a friend of mine, told me that the rugged terrain hampered their search for this elusive bird. However, his fellow naturalists did glimpse the bird, and he also heard its drumming.

Searching for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers is problematic because of the remoteness of the regions that he can be seen in. The Cache River Refuge covers a huge area, which is almost impassible. Also, the areas in Florida and South Caroline are swampy, with few clear passageways.

Since scientists need proof such a nest, a dead bird, or a clear photo, they cannot declare the Ivory-billed Woodpecker found. Like UFOs, about ninety-five of the sightings can be explained by something else – usually a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), leaving only five percent unexplainable. In cryptozoology (the study of hidden animals), stories of the imagination need to catch up with the pragmatism of scientists before they can be declared real. Such is the case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker – many stories but scant proof.

To me, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is real. Too many people tell of their glimpses of this bird. Also, no one really wants to declare the bird extinct. Instead of being lost to us, many people hold out hope that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker can still be found.

But, too many variables exist to pin down this bird. Perhaps, Ivory-billed Woodpecker only exists in our imaginations. Our dearest wishes and desires holds the bird to our reality. Since we have not given up on the Lord God Bird, we work to restore it to its former glory. Meanwhile, Ivory-billed Woodpecker has not given up on us. Somewhere in the swamps, an Ivory-bill Woodpecker drums loudly and waits for a friendly human again.

Conversations with Donald B. Adams, 30 Sept., 2008.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Region, U.S. Department of Interior, “Ivory-bill Woodpecker”

NOVA: scienceNOW, “Ivory-billed Woodpecker”

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