It was a sad day when the Ivory-billed Woodpecker went extinct, wasnít it? And itís a sad commentary on what mankind can do in its quest for whatever it is that we quest. The extinction of a species is, I suppose, the worst tragedy in nature. Extinction of a species rips a part of the soul out of people who care about life, ecology, biology, and nature.
But wait a minute. Who is absolutely SURE that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extinct? Iím going to build a case in this story that says that the Ivory-bill may still be alive, and conceivably could even be increasing its numbers in the United States.
If you read the literature, youíll probably find that the last truly reliable sighting of the Ivory-bill in the United States was in the 1940ís. You may even see the 1950ís mentioned here or there. Reports of the bird have continued to trickle in ever since, mainly by hunters, fishermen, and "locals", but none of those sightings have been "confirmed". Confirmed mainly means photographed or tape-recorded, but it could also mean being seen by someone who has the credentials to undeniably separate the Pileated from the Ivory-bill. Nonetheless, many authorities continue to think of it as extinct.
It is widely believed that the Ivory-bill was never common. The bird probably was native to old growth, bottomland forest in roughly the southeastern quarter of the U.S. The home range of a pair of Ivory-bills was probably considerably larger than that of a pair of Pileateds, as James Tanner found during his studies in the 1930ís in the Singer Tract, now called the Tensas River NWR, of northeastern Louisiana. It inhabited the type of forest that most people generally do not care to visit Ė places which are infested with cottonmouths eight months of the year, swarms of mosquitoes nine or ten months of the year, and even alligators eight months of the year in some places.
There is little argument that logging of old growth, bottomland hardwood forest was the reason for the decline of this special bird. James Tanner, under the guidance of Arthur Allen and under the auspices of Cornell University, set out to find, photograph, and tape-record the Ivory-bill in the 1930ís before it went extinct. He found a few of them in northeast Louisianaís Singer Tract. He fulfilled the mission by studying it, photographing it, and tape-recording it. He wrote a book about it.
Soon after Tannerís study, all-out logging commenced in the then-private forest, the Singer Tract. Acre after acre of virgin forest was felled. Think of the individual Ivory-bills. They heard the roar of the chainsaws, and they moved a few hundred yards ahead of the logging front. More trees fell. The Ivory-bills moved a little more. Soon the forest was down to 1,000 acres, then 100 acres, then there were just a few trees. The Ivory-bills were there in those last few trees. Do you think those birds clung to the last tree and rode it to the ground, only to be smashed to death? NO. Do you think they flew a little ways, landed in the dirt, and sat there until they starved? NO. They had wings. They flew, by golly. They flew until they found a tree. Any tree.
Logging no doubt was, and still is, extensive. But there may have been swamps, or parts of swamps, for example in Louisiana, that loggers and their equipment found too difficult to access for logging. The Atchafalaya River basin of central and southern Louisiana may have held such places. Did the final few Ivory-bills manage to work their way to these places in the mid-1900ís and carry on their existence? I can envision places where a few pairs of Ivory-bills may have found enough food to survive. But was there enough forest for them to carry on a healthy enough existence to reproduce? Maybe. An Ivory-billed Woodpecker probably has a pretty long life span if it does not meet an untimely death Ė 15 years, 20 years, 30 years? Maybe in some years those few birds did not reproduce, but maybe in some years they did.
Now I turn to the current state of the forest in Louisiana. Look at a roadmap of that state. Start in south central Louisiana and work your way northward following the Atchafalaya River and its basin. You will see sizable National Wildlife Refuges and Wildlife Management Areas sprinkled all the way up. When you get to the Three Rivers Area, you can then follow rivers (the Red, the Little, the Tensas, and the Ouachita) northward and see more NWRs, National Forests, and WMAs. The infamous Singer Tract, now called the Tensas River NWR, and the other NWRs and WMAs are now covered with 50+ year old forest. Logging still occurs in those NWRs and WMAs, but it is not as extensive as private property logging is. Do the Ivory-bills now have more suitable habitat than they did 30-60 years ago? I think so. Can an Ivory-bill travel 20, 30, 50, 70 miles between parcels of suitable habitat when it needs to? I expect it can. If a few birds in the remotest of swamps made it through the really rough years of logging, could they now be increasing in number and in coverage? I think itís conceivable.
Now I turn to the people who visit such swamps. Pete Dunne? Kenn Kaufman? Any other "big name" birders? NETFO birders? ANY birders? I think the answer is by-and-large NO. Of the people who visit such places, who has the credentials to point at the woodpecker in that tree and say this -- "THAT, by golly, is NOT a Pileated Woodpecker. It has a larger white bill, a black chin, a large white square on its lower back region when perched, a white trailing edge to the wing when it flew, it didnít undulate in flight like the Pileated, and its call sounds like the biggest doggone White-breasted Nuthatch in the world. This bird Iím looking at has been thought to be extinct since the 1940ís, so Iím going to get my camera out and shoot a whole roll of film. Iím going to get my tape recorder out and record its call notes. People are going to go nuts over this. Iím going to notify the LSU Ornithology Department as soon as I can get to a phone, and there will be dancing in the streets when it hits home that the Ivory-bill is indeed NOT extinct."???
What person with these credentials spends any considerable time in the Ivory-billís habitat? The few hunters and fishermen who go to such swamps generally are not interested in the identity of a bird, other than whether or not it is a duck. I KNOW this. Iíve been both an avid hunter and an avid fisherman in my younger years. And even while I knew a whole lot more about bird identification than the average hunter and fisherman, WHILE I was hunting or fishing, I couldnít have cared less about the non-game species around me. Sure, I remember listening to the occasional Barred Owl hoot while I was duck hunting in eastern Arkansas swamps. And I remember noticing an occasional Pileated Woodpecker in those Arkansas swamps. Was one of those Pileateds an Ivory-bill? Iíll never know. And at the time I didnít care, even though I liked birds. I was HUNTING, not birding. I was totally focused on what I could legally shoot, just like most other hunters are.
Good birders probably drive across the Atchafalaya basin at 70 mph, point, and say things like "used to be Ivory-bills out there," or "canít get many species in a forest like that, so we need to get on down to the coast to catch the migrant fallout," or "someday we oughta stop for a few minutes down there at that boat ramp." That doesnít get it!
Think about a rather hard-to-get-on-your-life-list bird that lives in the swamp. Swainsonís Warbler, maybe? Pileated Woodpecker, maybe? Swainsonís Warblers live in Ivory-bill habitat. But do you HAVE to go deep into the swamp to get your lifer Swainsonís? NO. You either catch one in migration on the coast, or you get a breeding male in May or June from the side of a road that cuts through a bottomland forest cane thicket. And you didnít even have to step off the road because you played a tape recording of his song, which pulled him into easy view. Pileated Woodpeckers live in Ivory-bill habitat. But do you HAVE to go deep into the swamp to get it? NO. A pair is probably sometimes in your, or your neighborís, back yard. You watch it, enjoy it, check it off on your life list, and boom, the search is over. "Glad I didnít have to slog through the swamp for that one," you think.
I think you get my point. Very few, if any, credible birders make a gallant effort to search for the Ivory-bill, or even set foot in its habitat.
In April 1999 (I repeat, 1999 Ė a year ago), a Wildlife and Fisheries college student from LSU, David Kulivan, was turkey hunting in the Pearl River WMA along the Louisiana/Mississippi border. Heís not a birder, but he says he knows birds. A pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, male and female, visited a tree very close to him, he says. He said the birds were as close as 10 yards (I repeat, 10 YARDS Ė thatís CLOSE) to him as he sat still in his camouflage. He said to himself something to the effect of, "Those are not Pileated Woodpeckers. I know Pileated Woodpeckers when I see them. They donít sound like Pileated Woodpeckers either." This young man knew enough about the Ivory-bill and its history to tell the LSU Ornithology Department about his observation. The professors interviewed him. Iíve personally talked to David Kulivan recently twice on the phone. Iíve also talked to Van Remsen, LSU professor of Ornithology, recently on the phone. Kulivan described his sighting to me, and he told me the general area where he saw them. Van Remsen told me that he has spent hours with Kulivan, and 1) Remsen says Kulivan is describing to a "T" the Ivory-bill, and 2) Remsen has detected no reason to believe that Kulivan is making up the story. They only very recently made this information available to the public.
I thank my brother, David, for making the effort to learn about the sighting and suggesting that we go on a search. He and I spent three full days in the Pearl River WMA near Slidell, Louisiana from midday February 17 to midday February 20, 2000. We spent every available daylight minute walking and canoeing as much of this beautiful tract of forest that we could. The WMA is about 4 miles wide and 15 miles long. The northern third of the WMA was very walkable due to the prolonged drought. However, the middle third, even though there has been a long drought, was virtually not coverable except by canoe on a couple of small waterways. That middle third was a cypress/tupelo swamp. Even David and I, as gung-ho as we are, barely attempted to walk into that cypress/tupelo muck, which I am going to guess covered roughly a 10-15 square-mile area. That would be 6,000+ acres. The cypress/tupelo swamp reportedly merges into open marsh in the southern third. Picture for yourself how little of the whole WMA we were able to cover in reality in three days, even though we each walked probably 20+ miles and canoed 10+ miles. We did not find an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. (Give a click to read about the "mystery sound".)
On Saturday, February 19 while we were there, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Department and the Natural Heritage Program led a widely publicized, official search for the bird. How many people showed up to help? 38. THIRTY-EIGHT??? Whatís up with that? Why not 138? Or 238? Youíve got the most reliable sighting of an "extinct" bird in the past 50 years, the bird that "every birder" dreams about seeing, and only THIRTY-EIGHT people show up? Furthermore, the Pearl River WMA is probably more road-accessible and closer to a population center than any of the other WMAs and NWRs in Louisiana! And this was in FEBRUARY when leaves are off the trees, and bugs, snakes, alligators, and heat are at a minimum! David Kulivan, the young man who says he saw the Ivory-bills, was one of those 38 searchers that day. Do you think if he had made up the story, he would show up on an organized search? NO. I bet that kid is praying that someone, anyone, confirms his sighting.
I rest my case.
I believe the Ivory-bill exists. And while I could quit my job and go spend all my time looking for it, I wonít. But Iím not finished searching for it. Iíve got vacation time. I predict that in my lifetime, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker will be confirmed to be alive. And I might just be the one who confirms it. How SWEET that would be.
Guy Luneauused by permission.
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