I’ll admit it: I am a first-class Ivory-billed Woodpecker junkie. This beautiful, large bird, if not extinct, has been hiding very well since the 1940s; the last known pair of birds was seen and extensively documented by Arthur Allan and Paul Kellogg in 1935 for their report Recent observations of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. When news broke in 2005 that the great bird may still be alive in southern Arkansas, I listened to all the news with great excitement. I looked at all the web sites for the institutions sponsoring the search for evidence that the bird had not become extinct, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to The University of Windsor. Heck, I even took a look around for them during the few months I lived in Louisiana (albeit from parking areas along the road–but still…).
When word came in 2010 that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology had ended its slog through the backwoods of Arkansas wetlands, I was saddened. I had hoped beyond hope, like everyone involved in the story, that somebody would get a photo of the creature and end all doubt of its demise. In February 2012, two other teams, after studying all the data from the recent searches and historical sources, came to the conclusion the bird was extinct, only conceding that if Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still exist, there are so few individuals that their existence may never be documented (which leads one to extrapolate the obvious).
The doubters were vindicated, conservationists, birders, and ornithologists who believed were heart-broken, and the citizens of the United States were robbed of an avian constituency whose existence was the bell-weather of well-being for the hardwood forests of the deep south. We messed up. “We” as in the American citizenry and business interests that didn’t get the connections between habitat and the creatures that need certain kinds of places to survive. We didn’t see that coming in the 1930s, back when only 20 or 30 Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still lived, but we learned many hard lessons about trying to control nature in the 1930s, especially the one about sustainable agriculture and the dust bowl. That was a rough lesson, but we were able to learn from it. This lesson–this harsh, hard, sad story–was learned at a very high price.
However, Ron Rohrbaugh, director of Cornell Lab’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project, offers this sliver of hope:
“We have to be sure that the bird is really gone before we give up. As soon as one decides that a species is extinct, there are a lot of consequences,” he said. “That bird can lose protection under the Endangered Species Act, its habitat can be lost, and there’s a change of attitude among scientists and the public to submit new observations because they might be scoffed at.”
And so, with the official search at an end, I peruse a list and map of the last known, credible sightings of the bird and dream about a new adventure to the hardwood forests of the south. As I take a look at the final reports generated by the recent surveys, two things stand out to me that give me hope: the mapped survey areas are small, and the report writers at Cornell do not concede that the great woodpecker is extinct. Other questions loom concerning known sightings in Cuba, but given the current state of relations with them, we may have to wait awhile to find out if the bird still lives in the island nation. And the status of the Imperial Woodpecker (the Ivory-billed’s flamboyant and much-larger cousin) whose home is in the montane forests of Mexico, is also Critically Endangered (possibly extinct)–but, curiously, not officially extinct.
There is still hope.