Ultrarare Woodpecker Spurs Ultimate Birding Trip

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
January 15, 2002

The hunt is on for the ivory-billed woodpecker, a treasured bird that appears to have disappeared from the old-growth forests of the southeastern United States some 50 years ago.

Among birders, the beautiful and majestic black and white woodpecker with a three-inch-long ivory bill holds the status of the Holy Grail. Spotting an ivorybill is the impossible dream.

Many people believe the bird is extinct. But others disagree, and have mounted a month-long expedition to comb the swamps of Louisiana to search for the elusive bird.

The search is the outcome of a reported sighting in April 1999 by David Kulivan, who at the time was a forestry major at Louisiana State University (LSU).

Kulivan was hunting wild turkeys when he spotted two birds that he believes were ivorybills. He sat against a tree and quietly watched them—at close range—for 15 minutes, until they flew off.

Kulivan gave an extremely detailed description to Van Remsen, an ornithologist at LSU and curator of birds at its Museum of Natural Science.

Officials at the North America division of Carl Zeiss Sports Optics decided to sponsor an intensive search for the bird in eastern Louisiana's 35,000-acre (14,165-hectare) Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, where Kulivan had been hunting. Zeiss, which is based in Germany, manufactures optical instruments including binoculars and spotting scopes that are tools of the trade for birders.

Zeiss asked Remson to organize the search, which will get underway on Thursday, January 17. The team consists of five internationally known birders, a slew of volunteers, and researchers from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

The "Lord God" Bird

The more exotic colloquial name for the ivory-billed woodpecker is the "Lord God" bird.

"The story goes that the name came about because when a person first spotted one, they'd say 'Lord God, what a woodpecker,' because the birds are really, really big," said Jerome Jackson, an ornithologist at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Jackson served on the planning team for the expedition and has written a book on ivorybills that will be published next year by the Smithsonian Institution.

Continued on Next Page >>


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