Memorable Day for an Ivorybillphile
morning like no other... the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed
woodpecker is announced, and for a moment, the world notices...
Today is April 28, 2005. This
morning started out like all other mornings, but t was not. When I
got up, I did not think that anything was different, but it was.
As I started my coffee, turned on the radio to the NPR (National
Public Radio) morning
show, checked my birds, gave them their morning snack, fed the
cat, poured my coffee, and ambled towards my computer to check
the e-mail, I had no idea of the news that awaited me.
Although this seemed
like every other morning, it was not…
I was not paying much
attention as I casually scrolled down the list... then a subject
line caught my eye...it was from an ornithological list and
simply stated "Ivory-billed Woodpeckers refound (in
US)" -- IVORY-BILLED? THE EXTINCT IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER? Campephilus
certainly jolted me into consciousness. The e-mail, stated that
"Conclusive evidence has now been gathered that a population
of Ivory-bills persists in Arkansas." My heart skipped
WOW! The source was a BirdLife
International representative so it was not likely to be a hoax.
But where, when, how? Then, as if on cue, NPR suddenly announced
the news that the Ivory-billed woodpecker had indeed been
The area was near the White River and in the Cache Rive National
Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. I was familiar with this area
as I had fly-fished the White River many times. However, I would have never expected
that it would be the place where the Ivory-billed woodpecker
would be found. This was all just too absolutely incredible and wonderful.
Like many birdwatchers in the US, I had become an ivorybillphile.
That was how I described myself to a friend later that night
when trying to explain my feelings about this rediscovery. I am
sure that is a description that others who fall into this
category would readily understand. What
are some of the distinguishable characteristics of an ivorybillphile? The first identifying trait has to be a fanatical
interest in anything relating to the Ivory-billed woodpecker. In
extreme cases, such as mine, a symptom is the collection of all
publications and general memorabilia related to
An ivorybillphile also holds out hope and believes that the
Ivory-billed woodpecker will once again be found and follows
potential sightings of Ivory-billed woodpeckers with great
interest – hoping that this will be the one. Since most
serious ivorybillphiles are also birders, they hold a secret
fantasy that one day, while out in the field, they will have the
opportunity to see and confirm a real Ivory-billed woodpecker! The
Ivory-billed woodpecker was the Golden Grail of American birders. The
Walter Mitty fantasy each one of us secretly
There was great hope when a
college student hunting in the Pearl River Management area in Louisiana
believed that he had seen two birds. His description was so
credible that it convinced ornithologists to mount a search
expedition and Zeiss Optics to fund the project in 2002. But
again, despite great hope, the searchers came up empty – to the great
disappointment of ivorybillphiles
the world over.
I remember driving past the
area in Louisiana
on my way back to
thinking that there just “had” to be some birds that managed
to survive in the inaccessible swamps. I had been to the Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile,
found it both tragic and fitting that the
incredible almost three-foot tall Boehm
porcelain of three Ivory-billed woodpeckers on a tree stump was
the prized centerpiece
of their magnificent Boehm porcelain collection. After all, the area was
part of the Ivory-billed woodpeckers historic range, and who
knows maybe they once had been on the property? (As an aside, Edward Marshal Boehm, besides
being a brilliant wildlife artist and sculptor, was also an
But today was different!
Finally, after so many years and to the joy of every ivorybillphile,
there was confirmation that the Ivory-billed still lived! The
Ivory-billed woodpecker had in fact survived. I could barely
contain my joy!
But, as the day wore on and as
I avidly collected scraps of information and news on this
absolutely monumental day, sending them on to a number of
avicultural lists. But the more I learned, the more that my initial feeling of
elation began to give way to a feeling of deja vu. I
had been here before…The reports confirmed that so far, the
researchers had discovered only a single bird, a male. I began
to get a slight tinge of concern as the story seemed to parallel
my previous experiences with the rediscovery of another species thought
extinct in the wild and then found… the Spix’s
I surfed the news channels
trying to catch a glimpse of the press conference in
Washington, DC. Finally, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton herself made
the official announcement and introduced the program and the
participants in this historic event. She congratulated the team
that had confirmed the discovery and made a pledge of
collaboration and funding for the conservation effort -- an
astounding $10 million dollars! Amazing!
This was unexpected support for one confirmed bird. This was a
true example of the power of a charismatic flagship species at
As expected, this was a well
choreographed event. But I was caught off guard by how much had
already been accomplished. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Press release outlined a rather comprehensive program. This was
a surprise. I expected it to be a general announcement of the
discovery, but obviously much planning and strategic thinking
had been completed before the press event.
was difficult to understand how this discovery had been kept
under wraps for a year, particularly if the federal government,
national organizations and local groups had all been privy to
this information. The fact that such a momentous discovery had
not “leaked” before the announcement was in itself
My previous experiences in
endangered species conservation made me expect exactly the
opposite. Instead of such a display of collaboration and
planning, I was expecting conservation groups and the government
to be falling over each over trying to be the “first” to
break the news – and to take credit.
As the day progressed,
statements from other organizations began to appear in the
media and on the internet. A few expressed congratulations to
the organizations involved for pulling off such an amazing feat,
while others obviously tried to ride the publicity wave. BirdLife
International sent out a joint press release with its US
partner, the National Audubon Society, congratulating the effort
but failing to mention the
major players by name – the Nature Conservancy and the
Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Then, on another e-mail list,
I was directed to a great blog called “Living the Scientific
Life” documenting the trials and tribulations of a new
researcher in the academic community. She had posted a number of
e-mails from individuals who were the primary members of the
investigation and search team … and the “real” story
to take shape… I
enjoyed the posts thoroughly as they only confirmed what I had
been reading between the lines in the events of the day.
It seems that the Cornell Lab
of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy had set up an
incredible operation that included over 50 search team members
and the involvement of many locals. It must have been a
logistical nightmare, but considering that it was conducted with
an understanding that the work would not be made public until
everything was ready, is astonishing. It was obviously a well
thought out and multi-faceted conservation strategy.
While the search team
Cornell Lab of ornithology focused on the birds, the Nature
Conservancy worked on acquiring land and habitat. They
managed to keep this operation under wraps, until the US Fish
and Wildlife Service in Washington
was notified a week before the announcement. The original plan
was to have the announcement made in mid May, but the event had
to be moved up – drum roll please – because someone from
the Service in Washington had leaked the news to other groups who apparently were ready to
go public with the news! I knew it!
The events of the day brought
back vivid memories of my own experiences almost 15 years before
when the rediscovery the Spix’s macaw (another species
thought to be extinct in the wild) was announced to the world. It
was August 1990 and the International Council for Bird
Preservation - ICBP (now known as BirdLife International),
convened a press conference in Rio de Janeiro to announce that they had “discovered” a single Spix’s
macaw in the wild.
However, this “discovery”
and announcement came as a huge shock to many of us that had
been working with the Brazilian wildlife authorities to craft together a recovery plan for the species by
setting up a
captive-breeding program for the estimated 12 birds left in
captivity. Our shock was not at the news of the last wild bird,
as there had been rumors of its existence, but at the fact that
this was made public before there was time to establish a plan
to protect the last wild bird. The
wildlife authorities found out just as everyone else in Brazil
– from news reports. The premature release of the information
was possibly the worst thing that anyone could have done for the
safety and welfare of the individual bird, and not only
that—the ICBP press conference included a map showing roads and
marking the location of the discovery!
I was a witness to the fallout
of their actions as I arrived in Brasilia just as the news broke and was
with the wildlife officials as they scrambled to get
guards to this remote region in an almost futile attempt to try
to provide security for this extremely valuable bird.
Instead of working with the Brazilians to try to first secure
the location, ICBP chose to go with the international attention
and publicity that such an announcement would attract. At least
in the case of the Ivory-billed woodpecker, there had been
enough groundwork completed before going public with the news.
As I read the paper on the
Science website "Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
(Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America" my
heart sank. Certain parts of the abstract caught my eye: "
the existence of at least one male". "Extensive
efforts to locate birds away from the primary site remain
unsuccessful, but potential habitat for a thinly distributed
source population is vast..."
So many of the statements and assumptions were similar
to those made in the case of the Spix's macaw. I was hoping that
history was not repeating itself.
Had someone told me in 1990
that that was the last known Spix's macaw left in the wild in
the world, I am not sure I would have believed it. At that
time there was great hope that they still existed somewhere in the dry desert caatinga habitat of Brazil.
after years of intensive searches and false leads, we know that
is was most likely the last wild Spix’s macaw. But at least in
the case of the Spix's macaw, there is a captive population that
grew from an initial base of 11 birds to over 60, and once it
reaches a sustainable size to be harvested, there is always the potential of a
reintroduction program. (If the habitat can be restored and
But, in the case of the
Ivory-billed woodpecker, there is no captive population from
which to draw on for future reintroductions. The only hope is that there are in fact other
birds and that there is a viable breeding population hidden
somewhere in the wilderness Arkansas. Of course, a single
pair of remnant birds does not ensure a population, so even if a
female is found, the species is not secure. The extinction
vortex is relentless...
If, by some incredible twist
of fate, this is the last wild Ivory-billed woodpecker, the hope that its
discovery triggered would make its actual extinction even more tragic.But
I decided not to dwell on my fears, at least not today! This has been such a
tremendous day that needs to be celebrated.
The fact that two major national organizations,
the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy worked
with the local communities to put together such a large project
while keeping it a secret is simply astounding.
The fact that
the US Fish and Wildlife Service is providing the funds will
help preserve vital habitat and support the work of conservation
groups is a good sign (as long as they don't interfere with the
The fact that at least one Ivory-billed woodpecker has
survived into the new millennium is miraculous.
Today is a day to celebrate
the resilience of life and to hope for success. Good luck and
best wishes to the Ivorybill Team!
will watch, support and as always, hope...
AND PRESS RELEASES:
National Public Radio (NPR) Story April 28, 2005 (includes
Woodpecker Rediscovered in Arkansas"
Publication (PDF file) "Ivory-Billed
Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in
Continental North America"
official site of the actual "Big Woods"
BirdLife International Press Release:
Woodpecker Found in Arkansas"
National Audubon Society Press Release:
Worldwide Celebrate Rediscovery of Ivory-billed
US Fish and Wildlife Service Web:
Includes news release and additional information on the
recovery effort, including funding.
Scientific Life" Blog.