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.

The birds are huge as birds go; about 20 inches (51 centimeters) long with a wingspan of nearly three feet (0.9 meters). Because they are so large, they need a lot of forest in which to live, and were probably never very numerous. They declined steadily in number as a result of hunting and habitat loss from clear-cutting of forests.

"Between 1880 and 1910, most of the virgin forests of the Southeast United States were cut," said Jackson. "It was also the heyday of collecting—the birds were shot and stuffed for decorating the parlor and for museum collections."

In addition, Native Americans revered the ivorybill as a symbol of success in warfare. The bills were widely traded, "almost like currency," Jackson said, and have been found in graves and Indian middens as far away as Colorado and Michigan. "I saw one war pipe in a museum collection that had seven bills and scalps dangling from it," said Jackson.

The ivorybill is officially listed as endangered, but not extinct. The last viable population of the birds was documented by James Tanner in the 1930s in what is now the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Louisiana.

Tanner's widow, Nancy, often trekked through the forests with him. "I went with Jim back to Louisiana in December 1941 before he left for the Navy," she wrote in a recent e-mail correspondence. "We were there for two weeks, and I suppose I am, maybe, the only one left alive who saw the ivory-billed day after day."

Braving the Bayous

Jackson said the chances of spotting the bird on this expedition are "pretty slim," but there are many reasons why the bird might be found in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area.

"It's the closest extensive forest to New Orleans, so the forest was originally logged when the city began growing," he said. "By the 1830s the forest was cut over, and while other forests have been cut over since then, Pearl River has been growing ever since and the forest includes some really big trees."

Since Kulivan's experience, hundreds of people have been in the area looking for the woodpecker, according to Jackson. But the terrain is difficult, threaded with bayous and creeks, frequently flooded, and overridden with dense foliage and impenetrable undergrowth.

Those not deterred by these hazards face gators, snakes, hordes of mosquitoes that infest the swamp nine or ten months of the year, and temperatures hovering close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in the summer.

Even Kulivan, who is about to complete work for his master's degree in wildlife studies at LSU, agrees. "Though I have been part of many trips back into the Pearl to look for the birds and evaluate habitat, all of these excursions have been centered in the northern, more-accessible areas," he said.

"The area can be very difficult to traverse," Kulivan added. "Sloughs and bayous of various depths crisscross the area. We jokingly say that the interior of the Pearl is too wet to walk into, yet too shallow for a pirogue [canoe]."

The months of January and February are an ideal time for searching. The trees are barren and it is a time when the birds are likely to be most vocal, just before mating season.

Researchers from the Cornell Ornithology Lab will deploy state-of-the-art electronic recording devices in the Pearl River area. Satellite imagery, aerial photographs, and timber data will be analyzed to identify areas that offer prime habitat for the birds.

Still, the elusive woodpecker might not be found. But not finding it won't prove it's not there. For so rare a bird, only a photograph or a detailed sighting by multiple observers will be considered a genuine sighting.

"This bird is really the tip of the iceberg, the visible symbol for the bottomland hardwood forest that we've lost," said Jackson. "There are many other creatures that don't have the same appeal as the Lord God bird but that depend on this habitat. If nothing else, the search serves as a reminder that we need to protect our forests."

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