Seeing a Ghost

A woodpecker feared extinct reappears in Arkansas

As we were putting the finishing touches on this issue of Smithsonian, scientists announced they had seen an almost mythical creature long thought extinct—an ivory-billed woodpecker. A team led by Cornell University ornithologists tracked a lone male found in an Arkansas national wildlife refuge for 14 months while the Nature Conservancy bought up adjacent lands. The scientists spotted the ivory-billed bird 15 times and even filmed it—the first confirmed sightings in the United States in 60 years!

Once, the bird's plaintive pait pait pait call echoed across swampy forests throughout the Southeast. But the birds began to dwindle in the late 1800s as loggers cut the ancient trees where the woodpeckers nested. The species was one of the first known to face extinction because of human damage to its habitat. Bird-watchers call it the ghost bird or the grail bird; another nickname, now more apt than ever, refers to what people exclaimed when the clamoring, starkly colored bird with a 30-inch wingspan flew by: the "Lord God" bird.

John James Audubon wrote: "I have seen it detach pieces of bark seven or eight inches in length at a single blow of its powerful bill," leaning its head "against the bark to ascertain the precise spot where the grubs were concealed, and immediately after renewing its blows with fresh vigour, all the while sounding its loud notes, as if highly delighted." Now the delight is ours.

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