Much Is Riding on Ivory Bill's Wings

Last seen in 1944, the ivory-billed woodpecker was believed extinct until it was sighted in Arkansas last year.
Last seen in 1944, the ivory-billed woodpecker was believed extinct until it was sighted in Arkansas last year. (Cornell Lab Of Ornithology Via Reuters)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

BRINKLEY, Ark. -- More than 30 bird experts now spend each day in the swampy forests of eastern Arkansas, tying audio and video recording devices onto tree trunks, paddling quietly in canoes, and sitting on camouflaged wooden platforms near ancient cypresses, just waiting for the rare ivory-billed woodpecker to appear.

More than six months after scientists announced to the world that they had rediscovered the presumed-extinct bird, they are in the midst of an unprecedented search for the icon. It is a campaign that could transform the nation's conservation debate, and it has already altered the small town adjoining the bird's natural habitat.

"We've got all the people, the equipment in place, now all we need is a little luck," said Ken Levenstein, crew leader for the 22 scientists who are searching full time for the woodpecker until the end of April 2006 along with a rotating group of 112 volunteers.

A group of bird researchers -- including officials from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and the Nature Conservancy -- electrified birders in late April when they declared the ivory-billed woodpecker had survived undetected in the Big Woods, more than half a million acres of bottomland hardwood forest an hour's drive from Little Rock. In February 2004 Gene Sparling, a local birder, first saw the woodpecker, which had not been seen conclusively since 1944, and in the ensuing year other researchers spotted it and captured it on film in a blurry four-second videotape.

"It's given us a renewed hope that all these efforts, all this work, can pay off," said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast regional director for Fish and Wildlife. "It's the story of how you can get a second chance."

Hamilton and other conservationists are anxious to show that the recent sightings are not an aberration but proof that preserving and restoring habitat can sustain some of the nation's most prized species. While scientists have recorded the bird's telltale double knock over the past year and have spotted it more than half a dozen times, no one has produced the kind of precise photo that could win over skeptics.

"Nobody seems to be able to whip out a camera fast enough," Hamilton said, adding that many Americans may soon lose their appetite for funding the bird's recovery without more conclusive proof. "We live in a fast-moving society, with short memories."

At the moment, advocates of the red-crowned bird that helped inspire the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker are pouring enormous sums into locating it and preserving its environs. Federal authorities have provided $10.2 million toward the effort, and the Nature Conservancy has bought 18,500 acres of Big Woods habitat to set aside for the bird since its rediscovery.

Experts believe the bird lives in the Mississippi Delta region, which includes parts of Arkansas' Cache and White rivers. State and federal lands comprise 300,000 acres of the woodpecker's habitat, but the government wants to buy 220,000 more acres in the coming decade.

Federal officials, working with local wildlife hunters, already had begun restoring the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge where the bird was found last year. Dennis Widner, who has managed the refuge since its inception, started planting native bottomland hardwoods from acorns in 1988 and hopes to plant hundreds of thousands more trees in an effort to reconnect the bird's fragmented habitat.

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle you're putting together," Widner said. "But it's a jigsaw puzzle you won't finish for the next hundred years."

But scientists such as Cornell's Ron Rohrbaugh, who directs the ivory-billed woodpecker research project, have a more urgent task. Rohrbaugh lists it at the top of his PowerPoint presentation on the group's objectives: "Relocate the bird and obtain irrefutable evidence."

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