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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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For 14 months, the crew labored in often appalling conditions—winter's deep, bone-damp cold, and summer's heat, stifling humidity, swarming bugs and venomous cottonmouths. The searchers' families, in some cases even their spouses, knew nothing of the mission. A three-page memo, issued to each team member, advised how to deflect interest and quash rumors without actually lying. Over predawn coffee or late evening meals in local diners—anywhere other than the team's two base camps—mud-splashed crew members referred only to "the bird" or its code name, "Elvis." If anyone asked, they were simply doing a major biological inventory of the Big Woods.

My role in the drama was a minor one. The Nature Conservancy had hired me to document the search by writing an article for its magazine timed to coincide with the announcement of the bird's discovery. Although I'm now free to tell the story elsewhere, at the time I was constrained by the same pledge of secrecy as the rest of the crew. Everyone realized that if word leaked out, birders would stampede to the forest, hoping to add the woodpecker to their life lists, and greatly complicate the mission. They also knew that skeptics would demand ironclad proof in the form of photographs or recordings.

The secrecy also allowed the Nature Conservancy and Cornell to raise nearly $10 million and quietly buy up ivory-bill habitat, adding to the more than 120,000 acres of the Big Woods that the conservancy had already protected over the previous two decades. (The immense forest, about half of it now preserved as federal or state wildlife refuges, is also home to black bears and the world's largest wintering population of mallards.)

Getting proof of the ivory-bill's existence was harder than anyone expected. All told, team members glimpsed the bird fewer than two dozen times. (I wish I could say one of those glimpses was mine, but Elvis eluded me.) They made recordings of what sounded like the unique double-rap drumming of an ivory-bill, but pileated woodpeckers may, on rare occasions, make similar sounds. Likewise, the kent-kent calls caught on the automated recording units may have been an ivory-bill—or may have been an unusual blue jay call.

The clincher was a video made in April 2004 by David Luneau, a professor of electronics at the University of Arkansas and a member of the Big Woods search team. Luneau took me, moving silently in a canoe rigged with an electric trolling motor, to the spot where he and his brother-in-law got just three or four seconds of video as the ivory-bill flew away. Still, it was enough to clearly show the enormous patches of white on the rear half of the wings and bands of white on the back—proof that this was no mere pileated woodpecker.

Even after I had spent days in the forest, canoeing with team members or sitting quietly alone on an observation platform, listening to the whooping of barred owls, I sometimes found it hard to believe the object of the hunt was real. One afternoon I was paddling with Martjan Lammertink, a woodpecker expert from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, when I noticed a tupelo tree trunk with a hole the size of a dinner plate chiseled into it, wood chips floating on the brown water below. When I asked if that was an ivory-bill's work, he shook his head. "No," he said, "when an ivory-bill cuts, it's more like a"—but I missed the rest of his reply. The simple fact that he used the present tense to refer to a species synonymous with extinction short-circuited my ears.

So far, no one in Arkansas has reported seeing more than one ivory-bill, always apparently a male, always alone. Could this be the last of his kind, a cruel taste of hope before the candle goes out? Maybe, but none of those who have been chasing Elvis through the Big Woods think it likely. If the woodpecker has lasted more than 60 years without our knowledge, the chance that we've now stumbled upon its very last member is remote. The searchers have combed only a small fraction of the huge and challenging swampland, and have yet to find his core territory or nighttime roost holes. Ivory-billed woodpeckers can live up to 30 years, so at least one pair were breeding in the past two decades. The odds are that a small, highly endangered population of ivory-bills exists.

And there is another, far more potent reason for hope. I've birded all over the country, but the Big Woods area was a revelation to me—a vast, beautiful chunk of wild land. The Southern bottomland hardwood forests of flooded cypress and tupelo swamps, and the seasonally wet uplands of oak and sweet gum, were some of the continent's greatest landscapes. Their destruction was one of our great conservation tragedies. By World War II large tracts of forest were cut almost to the last stick, but they have, to a remarkable degree, risen anew from that wreckage. The trees are still relatively young compared with the 1,000-year-old monsters that once grew there. But in this part of the world trees grow fast, and some of the second-growth is now a century old.

And if the ivory-billed woodpecker has survived in the Big Woods, maybe—just maybe—it has survived elsewhere. "You know why I think there have been so many ivory-bill sightings the last few years?" Bobby Harrison asked me as our canoes drifted side by side through the Cache. "I think they're getting more common. The habitat is there, and I think the birds are too."

Rumors of ivory-bills in the Atchafalaya—at 800,000 acres, the largest bottomland hardwood swamp in the United States—have persisted since those disputed photos in 1971. People claim to have seen the bird in half a dozen or more places around the South—the Apalachicola River, Wekiva River and the Fakahatchee/Big Cypress Swamp in Florida, the Congaree Swamp in South Carolina, the Pascagoula and Yazoo rivers in Mississippi, and the Pearl River in Louisiana. If the hunt in Arkansas holds a particular lesson, it's that this is a surpassingly elusive bird, more like a will-o'-the-wisp than a living animal.


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