The recent news that the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct -- it's living in the woods of Arkansas -- caused millions of women to think of their lifelong search for the perfect purse.

The ivory-billed woodpecker earned the nickname of the "Lord God" bird because that is what many amazed people said when they saw it. The same words would fall from women's lips if they laid eyes upon a handbag that is attractive and trendy but utilitarian, is a color that works for every outfit, has the correct shape and the right number of internal pockets, has a shoulder strap for hands-free utility but doesn't bump constantly into the hip when it swings, is water- and stain-proof in case of dew and dirt on a soccer field, and looks expensive (or at least doesn't look cheesy). It must be large enough to carry everything we need, but not so big as to tempt us into carrying, say, a candelabrum, or anything heavy enough to force an appointment with the chiropractor.

This is not too much to ask. But, like the bird, the perfect purse is a Holy Grail. Many of us think it to be, if not mythical or extinct, utterly elusive.

Why? After all, handbag departments at major retailers are growing, as is the number of shops devoted to purses and tote bags and the like. Vendors peddle them on sidewalks in walking cities such as Washington and New York.

"Department stores are growing their handbag sections significantly, many with in-store boutiques such as Coach," says Lauren Parker, editor of Accessories Magazine, a monthly trade publication. "Some department stores have moved hosiery off the main floor" to give the space over to handbags.

The most recent statistics available for the handbag segment of the $30 billion accessories industry show it hovering at $5.34 billion in 2003 (sidewalk vendors not included), making it second only to jewelry in its category, according to the annual census taken by Accessories Magazine. It is showing no signs of faltering on its upward climb.

Parker notes that much of the expansion of handbag departments is from new players joining the scene with fresh brands, lower-priced brand offshoots and designer licenses. Coach, the classic leather goods manufacturer recently energized as a fashion brand, has raised its earnings forecast for 2005 because its bags are selling so well.

And "lack of handbag" has its consequences: A recent New York Times article attributed part of designer Helmut Lang's downfall to his "failure to create an 'it' handbag" for the Milan-based Prada Group, which has a controlling stake in his label.

Yes, handbags are hot. But the recent invasion of purses requires more explanation.

"Status" is one. Handbags are mobile signs of wealth when you can pointedly pull a Kleenex from a Gucci, Hermes, Fendi, Coach or other type of bag that you wouldn't think of setting between your feet on the Metro.

Then there's increased schlepping -- cell phones, iPod players, BlackBerrys, makeup, cameras, business cards, a book for reading on the Metro, maybe even some baby gear -- which has spawned bushels of tote bags. (Hordes of New Yorkers, though, seem immune to this reflex. The subways are full of women who carry their valuables in both a purse and an impeccably creased paper or plastic bag bearing the logo of a high-end store such as Bergdorf Goodman or Saks Fifth Avenue. It is a very weird phenomenon particular to New York City.)

"Jeans" is yet another theory.

Irenka Jakubiak, editor-in-chief of Accessories Magazine, says that, what with so many women wearing jeans and simple blouses, "the things that will stand out are a great bag and a great pair of shoes." Which is more important? Purse people say purses; shoe people say shoes.

Purse person Jakubiak insists that the handbag industry knows how to make functional purses and that they are out there.

I'm skeptical. Her defense of the industry does not explain the masses of women across the nation who wander wild-eyed through clutch- and tote-lands and, out of desperation, buy bags that they know are not quite right. Then they come back and try again, thus pumping more money into the handbag economy.

A conspiracy? I don't know, I'm just saying. . . .

If you need evidence of my theory, here's a snippet from a report issued just last month by NPD Fashionworld, a division of the marketing research firm NPD Group: The average woman owns six handbags, uses two of them a week, will keep a bag for three years, will pay up to $62 for each bag (upscale shoppers will spend $150 or more).

Three out of four women have a purse that they use most of the time. The NPD report goes on to say that, as we age, we tend to want one utilitarian purse. (But, see above, we buy six looking for that one!) Clearly, as we get older and wiser we know that it is infinitely preferable to be weirdly mismatched than to find out that the office key or shopping list is in the purse we left at home.

As if she's agreeing with my theory, Jakubiak promises that the current trend of cute and useless little bags is fading. On the horizon are more functional ones. Some will have straps that cross the body. The best will have lots of compartments and mini "to go" bags inside. They'll be oversize and soft.

But beware of too much slouch! As pursuers of the perfect purse know, a soft, slouchy purse will, to the desperate eye, give off vibes of being splendid -- but everything will sink to the bottom. It will reveal itself as troublesome only after you have lost its return receipt.

The hunt will begin anew. You do see what I mean.