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Ghost of a Chance

How did the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was feared extinct, hang on all these years?

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The news, which came to me in a cryptic telephone call one day this past February, was electrifying: the ivory-billed woodpecker, mourned as extinct for more than 60 years, had been found in the swamp forests of eastern Arkansas. I was being asked to accompany a search party that was conducting its work in extraordinary secrecy. For long moments, I forgot to breathe; for the next two nights, the excitement and awe kept me wide awake.

Any birder would have been thrilled, but I've long had a special interest in "ghost species," creatures of such surpassing rarity that we cannot say whether they are alive or extinct. I've chased the fading trail of these almost mythical animals from the mountains of Tasmania to the jungles of Brazil. Still, the ivory-bill had always exerted the strongest pull—and engendered the greatest heartache.

We who love wild America, who feel a personal grief over the spectacles we'll never see—prairies awash with millions of bison, flocks of passenger pigeons whose wings roared like hurricanes, the green-and-yellow shock of Carolina parakeets whirling through an Illinois woodland—had always counted the ivory-bill as one of the heaviest losses. Never merely a bird, the great woodpecker, with its black-and-white wings and the male's scarlet crest, was an icon of the immense swamp forest wilderness that stretched from Nashville to New Orleans, east to Florida, and up to the Carolinas. One folk name for the animal was the "Lord God" bird, because, the story goes, a person seeing an ivory-bill fly by on its two-and-a-half-foot wingspan often gasped, "Lord God, what a bird!"

The ivory-bill's forest habitat fell under the blades of loggers almost from the earliest days of colonization, but the timbering reached a frenzy from the late 1880s until World War II. The bird became synonymous with extinction, a haunting reminder of what a culture may lose when it squanders its natural wealth. Like a dying flame, the great woodpecker flickered several times; it was given up for extinct in the 1920s before a pair were rediscovered in Florida, only to be shot by specimen collectors. It was again consigned to extinction, and again found, in the 1930s in Louisiana.

That small population, at most just seven pairs in the 120 square miles of old-growth forest known as the Singer Tract, became the focus of scientific study and a ferocious conservation effort, even as the loggers of the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company cut deeper and deeper into the swamps. In 1943, Chicago Mill brushed aside pleas from four Southern governors, several federal agencies and the National Audubon Society that these last woods be saved as a refuge. ("We are just money grubbers," the company’s chairman said by way of explanation.) By 1944 the Singer Tract was becoming a wasteland, its giant sweet gums cut to make tea boxes for the British, and the last ivory-bill, a female, had vanished. The guttering candle, it seemed, had gone out.

Only rumors were left. Several ornithologists claimed to have seen the bird in Florida and Georgia in the 1950s, though without documentation, and one naturalist made a tape-recording of what he said was the animal's weird kent-kent calls in East Texas in the late 1960s. Two photographs from the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana surfaced in 1971, and while one respected ornithologist thought they were authentic, other experts derided them as a hoax. The Cuban ivory-bill, a distinct subspecies, was rediscovered in the 1980s, then disappeared again. Most experts dismissed the periodic ivory-bill reports in the United States as mistaken sightings of its widespread but smaller cousin, the pileated woodpecker. On those occasions when a sighting was followed up, including a well-outfitted, month-long search by a six-person team in Louisiana in 2002, nothing came of them.

A few days after learning of the bird's survival, I was deep in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, part of the 550,000-acre swamp forest known as the Big Woods, which runs 130 miles along Arkansas' Mississippi Delta. Sunlight streamed through the winter—bare canopies of the tupelos and cypresses. Some of the trees were old behemoths that had escaped the ax, but most were second-growth, well on their way to maturity. Wood ducks lifted off the river in little explosions of spray, and beavers slapped their tails against the water in alarm.

I accompanied a lean, bearded man named Gene Sparling, who had been paddling through this remote part of the Cache a year earlier when a huge woodpecker flew out of the woods. Sparling, an experienced outdoorsman and birder from Hot Springs, knew instantly what it was, but says his mind kept balking at the enormousness of it: "'It's an ivory-billed woodpecker,' I thought. 'But they're extinct. You can't see an extinct bird. But it's an ivory-bill.' My mind just got stuck in this loop."

This is where most ivory-bill stories end; someone is certain he's seen one, but there are no witnesses, no photographs, no proof. This time was different. Two weeks later, Sparling was back, leading Tim Gallagher, of Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, and Bobby Harrison, a photography professor from Alabama, who had been to Arkansas shortly before to check out earlier rumors. As Gallagher and Harrison paddled to the site of Sparling's encounter, an ivory-bill flapped out of the trees. They pointed and shouted; the woodpecker flared off and disappeared into the woods. Harrison, who had been searching for the ivory-bill for years, broke down in tears. Telling me the story a year later, he did so again.

Within weeks, one of the most intensive and secretive wildlife searches in history was under way, led by the Cornell Lab and the Arkansas chapter of the Nature Conservancy. More than 50 biologists took to canoes and kayaks, looked down from aircraft, or perched atop an 80-foot boom crane along the edge of the swamp. They hunched under camouflage netting in small blinds, and seeded the woods with automatic cameras and high-tech audio-recording devices.

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