Published: December 2006

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Pileated Ivory-Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

The Ghost Bird

An ivory-billed woodpecker hasn’t been seen for certain since 1944. Does a holdout survive today in Arkansas’s Big Woods?

By Mel White
Photograph by Joel Sartore

I can testify that at 7:30 a.m. on March 16, 2006, there was no ivory-billed woodpecker at latitude 34°6’48”, longitude 91°7’43”, deep in the spring-greening woods of Arkansas's White River National Wildlife Refuge. A straightforward enough observation, you might think—but you’d be wrong. When it comes to the Lord God Bird, even the simplest statement invites equivocation and argument.

I was one of about 50 people participating in a “saturation search” of an area where biologists from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (CLO) thought an ivorybill might be present. As I sat quietly on a log with my binoculars and camera ready, listening to morning birdsong, I knew some would say that the entire effort was futile and even nonsensical—that the reason neither I nor anyone else would see an ivorybill was that the last one in the U.S. died a lonely death decades ago, leaving only sad, dried, eyeless skins resting in the ornithological morgues of museum trays.

The ivorybill faithful, on the other hand, have another explanation. They say the bird, in its 21st-century incarnation, has been transformed into a creature as shy as Bambi, as silent as a Trappist monk, as anxious to avoid photographers as a Mafia stool pigeon in a witness-protection program—altogether as invisible to the human senses as a stealth fighter is to radar.

So: I feel strongly that no ivorybill was present at the above time and location, but I could be wrong.

Get used to that kind of sentence, because today’s lesson is all about conjunctions and adverbs: but, though, however, unless, possibly, nonetheless, and, of course, maybe. Especially maybe.

Two months later and 40 miles (65 kilometers) to the north, Ron Rohrbaugh of the CLO stood on the lawn under the clock tower of the Monroe County courthouse, addressing a small crowd sheltered from the midday sun under tents provided by a local funeral home. He was there to announce the results of a six-month search for the ivory-billed woodpecker in the area of eastern Arkansas known as the Big Woods, a half-million-acre (200,000 hectares) expanse of forest and wetlands centered on the White River. The effort involved some 20 field biologists and more than a hundred carefully selected volunteers, as well as remote audio recorders, automatic cameras, GPS-based computer mapping, and all the other high-tech gizmos that the team had assembled with its million-dollar budget.

Rohrbaugh thanked the people of eastern Arkansas for their hospitality, reviewed past research, and listed some “interesting” and “intriguing” possible sightings that unfortunately “don’t add any additional confirmation.” All this might have been summed up in a pithy phrase his colleague Elliott Swarthout had used a few days earlier. “We’re going to present exactly what we found this season,” Swarthout said, “and that ain’t squat.”

It was a long way, literally and figuratively, from the scene a year earlier when, on April 28, 2005, CLO director John Fitzpatrick stood on a stage in Washington, D.C., along with the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture Departments and two senators, to announce that a secret Cornell-led search team had confirmed the existence of an ivory-billed woodpecker flitting elusively through the tupelos along a small Arkansas stream called Bayou DeView.

The rediscovery of this legendary bird of the great southern forests, which most ornithologists and bird-watchers thought had probably been extinct since the 1940s, made news around the world. Fitzpatrick called it “the conservation story of the century.” Nature lovers were ecstatic; people cried when they heard the news. It seemed the closest thing to a scientific miracle anyone could imagine. The cadre of ivorybill enthusiasts who had believed in the bird for decades, and who had faced only slightly less ridicule than Bigfoot fanatics, had been vindicated.

Nearly everyone accepted the news without question. The United States government gave its blessing through the cooperation of the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Nature Conservancy was a partner in the announcement. The journal Science published the search team's paper. After all, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology arguably holds first place among the world's most prestigious centers of bird study. When the Vatican issues an edict, to whom, exactly, do you appeal for a second opinion?

The team had chosen to assert that it had proof that a single ivorybill was present in Arkansas in 2004 and early 2005. It was an act of possibly admirable courage—though, depending on what happens over the next few years, the team’s judgment may well be debated for as long as anyone cares about birds. As more and more bird-watchers and ornithologists examined the evidence—seven fleeting glimpses and four seconds of fuzzy video that make the notorious Bigfoot film look like March of the Penguins—a controversy began that soon escalated beyond polite discussion into decidedly unscientific name-calling. The bird world split into Believers and Skeptics, and splintered further into True Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists, with former friends and colleagues at each others’ throats.

Three weeks before the momentous announcement, members of the Cornell team had gathered at the Arkansas Nature Conservancy office in Little Rock to lay out their case. They discussed the seven sightings and showed the video. As good scientists, they listed the positives and negatives of their proof in great and meticulous detail.

After listening to the presentation, White River refuge manager Larry Mallard looked at Martjan Lammertink. “Martjan,” he said, “we have a saying around here that you can’t be just a little bit pregnant. So tell me: Are we pregnant, or are we not?”

“We’re pregnant,” Lammertink said.

The question of whether Lammertink had morning sickness or just a case of nerves seemed mysterious enough to most people. What was the big fuss? Was there a bird or wasn’t there?

The current controversy can’t be understood, nor can proof of the ivorybill’s existence be judged—lacking, as it does, a specimen that could be brought back from Arkansas like King Kong from Skull Island—without getting to know the pileated woodpecker, the joker in this game. The big, black-and-white, relatively common bird gives a raucous call that might as well be mocking the thousands of people who have mistaken it for its larger but similar relative. (Since the discovery announcement, the CLO has received nearly 3,000 reports of ivorybills, some from places as unlikely as Vancouver and Vermont.) To the Skeptics, the video and all the sightings can be dismissed as misidentifications of pileateds resulting from eager wishfulness.

David Sibley, a best-selling bird-guide author and expert on identification, initially was elated at the ivorybill news. It was, as he says, “a story that everyone wanted to believe.” Soon, though, Sibley took a fresh look at the evidence and realized how little there was. Within weeks of the announcement, he was among a growing group of experts sharing their doubts in private, each having experienced a moment when, as Sibley remembers, “it struck me that that blurry video could be a pileated.”

“I realized at the same time,” Sibley says, “what that could mean for the credibility of conservation science. This was the biggest ornithology story of the century. It was international front-page news. What if it was wrong?”

Eleven months after Science published the Cornell team’s paper, the journal published another, with David Sibley as its lead author, asserting that the video did not rule out the possibility that the bird shown was a pileated woodpecker. Cornell simultaneously published a rebuttal. Casual bird-watchers and the general public were left confused by all the discussion of ventral surfaces, remiges, and video artifacts, but some Believers undoubtedly converted to Agnosticism, and many Agnostics became Atheists.

The ivorybill team still backs the validity of the seven sightings (and points to others that almost made the list), but its defense isn’t always expressed in the strongest terms. Cornell’s Ken Rosenberg, a top-level birder as well as a member of the ivorybill recovery team, stands behind the team’s video analysis, but acknowledges that the video’s poor quality may rule out any definitive answer. (“Do I wish we had a better video?” CLO director John Fitzpatrick asks, and immediately answers, “More than any other living human.”) Of the sightings, Rosenberg says: “Even in the very best, the field notes are not what I would write, and the recollections are not ... they’re just not all there. Hopefully that doesn’t come across as doubting what they saw, but it’s frustrating.”

Over and over, members of the team stressed how much they were influenced by the reactions of people who said they’d seen ivorybills. Fitzpatrick believed CLO staffer Tim Gallagher’s sighting of February 2004 in part because of Gallagher’s distraught emotional state, which to Fitzpatrick seemed “dead shock.” Rosenberg, “with tears rolling down,” heard and believed accounts of several of the early sightings. When Ron Rohrbaugh arrived by canoe to pick up Melanie Driscoll after her April 11, 2004, sighting, he could tell from a hundred yards away that something had happened. He thought she might have been bitten by a cottonmouth. “I remember trying to paddle faster so I could get to her. And when I got there, I got this geyser of excitement.”

But in the world of science, shock and tears are not proof. Everyone, from John Fitzpatrick to the odd collection of Internet-linked eccentrics who report ivorybills practically every week in Louisiana, Florida, and points in between, has to deal with one inescapable question: Why, for all the reported sightings in the 62 years since the last undisputed ivorybill was seen, has there not been a single instance when other observers were able to return to the location, find the bird, and get a clear, unequivocally diagnostic photo?

The ivorybill’s specialized feeding habits, the Believers say, force it into a nomadic existence, ranging over vast distances to find the few widely scattered dead trees that host its prey of wood-boring insects and grubs. But the notion of nomadism is a double-edged sword. If the birds constantly wander, as David Sibley says, “you would expect that sometime in the past 60 years one would show up at the boat ramp in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and spend three days on some big dead ash tree peeling bark off of it, and everybody would get to see it.”

The extreme pressures of hunting and museum-collecting on a tiny remnant population in the 19th and early 20th centuries, some Believers say, eliminated the noisy, unwary birds. Natural selection favored the survival traits of silence and extreme shyness, leaving a few nearly mute and hyper-timid individuals far different from the species said to be revered by Native Americans for its courage. (Many scientists, however, doubt that such behavioral change could occur in only two centuries or so.)

Whereupon the Skeptics point to the real elephant in the room: At least occasionally, ivorybill pairs must court, mate, excavate a cavity, lay eggs, incubate eggs, and feed the young in the nest, all of which requires the birds to remain in the same location for well over two months. Why, in 62 years, has not a single nest been found? This, perhaps more than anything else, is a problem for teetering Skeptics who might otherwise lean toward belief.

But then Rosenberg, Rohrbaugh, and Lammertink—along with Believers everywhere—go on to express an idea that could possibly be true, and indeed must be true if there are ivorybills on this Earth: There are great areas of southern bottomland forest where few people go, where a few pairs of birds could nest, perhaps not even every year but every few years, and not be found. “Can I imagine that a small, thinly distributed population, just enough to stay alive, has persisted to the present?” John Fitzpatrick asks. “I can imagine it.”

Off and on for two years, I walked the White River bottomland forests with ivorybill searchers, bunked with them in a duck lodge, ate catfish and drank beer with them, and questioned them about everything from childhood dreams to, reluctantly but inevitably, scientific credibility. In the spirit of disclosure, I admit that I came to like and respect nearly all of them. It occurred to me that if I were going to be skeptical, then I owed it to them and to the ivorybill (or its memory) to look into the eyes of someone not currently on the team who had seen the bird and hear the story firsthand. And so I did.

Melanie Driscoll’s eyes, in Ken Rosenberg’s opinion, were witness to “the best sighting of all” of the seven cited by the ivorybill team. As she sat across the table at a Baton Rouge coffee shop, she was neither seeking my approval nor apprehensive about my reaction, but instead simply relating her experience—and I could take it or leave it. She has in the past been introduced to people who, upon hearing that she’s one of those who saw the ivorybill, rolled their eyes and stalked away without a word. And she has met True Believers who immediately and unquestioningly idolized her like a rock star, even though it was obvious that they hadn’t studied the evidence or learned much of anything about the whole situation. Those people, she said, irritate her as much as the Skeptics.

After she saw the ivorybill, she said, her first thought was, “For the love of God, I can’t cry. I’m a scientist.”

She told me how she got her ten-power binoculars on the flying bird and “managed to get about three complete wingbeats where I could distinguish up- and downstroke. On each stroke I could see white to the trailing edge, both on the underside of the wing and the upperside of the wing,” as well as “white on the neck moving all the way down the neck and across the body to almost meet with the white in the wings.” All of which, if you have even a mustard seed’s worth of faith, makes you jump for joy that the ivorybill lives, and if you are a Skeptic, causes you to search for reasons why this woman did not see an ivory-billed woodpecker.

Many of America’s top bird-watchers, including David Sibley, have a simple answer: Birders, even the best birders, make mistakes. Every instance of field identification is a judgment call, a sorting of information and formation of an opinion, and sometimes the conclusion is wrong. “It has nothing to do with honesty or expertise or truthfulness,” Sibley says. “We all make these kinds of mistakes. We get excited about a possibility, and our brain tends to jump to that possibility whenever we see something remotely similar.”

Melanie Driscoll told me, as calmly as if she were asking for more hot water for her tea: “I am one hundred percent certain I saw an ivorybill.” She laughed when she remembered how, even at the time of her sighting, she knew people would think she was crazy. “At least if I was going to be thrown in a loony bin, I’d have good company,” she said. “So, yeah, I don’t expect people to believe my sighting. It’s unfortunate, but true. I find it incredible that anybody believes the sightings, in some ways. We do expect more objective evidence now.”

The billboards are still up along Interstate 40, inviting drivers to stop at Brinkley, the Home of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The town began as a railroad camp called Lick Skillet, and trains stayed busy in the late 19th century hauling giant trees from the seemingly endless forests of what was then known as the great swamp of Arkansas. The loggers were so efficient that when they were through, there was hardly any woodland left except along streams—like Bayou DeView—and the last ivorybill disappeared from these parts well before soldiers boarded the trains to fight in World War I.

Unless, well, you know ...

Until April 28, 2005, Brinkley was dying along with so many small eastern Arkansas towns.

Its dreams were answered by the rediscovery of the ivorybill, the iconic symbol of vanished wilderness, just three miles (five kilometers) from the local McDonald’s. People started and renamed businesses; hunting guides became bird guides; sporting lodges pitched their advertising to birders; tourists came and spent money; the town’s first Call of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Celebration attracted 250 people from around the country to the convention center.

I talked to Katie and Thomas Jacques, co-publishers of the Brinkley newspaper, in their office behind the post office. They had just printed a review of the eventful year following the ivorybill announcement. So much had happened, in fact, that the story spread over two editions of the Brinkley Argus.

I asked if the town had considered what would happen if the ivorybill was never seen again. Katie laughed and said, “That question was being asked long before now.”

Brinkley has an answer, all right—in a New Mexico town that’s done quite well for itself as a pilgrimage site for a slightly different kind of Believer.

“Look at Roswell,” Katie Jacques said. “That whole UFO crash deal was based on a little newspaper article in, what, 1946, ‘47? So it doesn’t take much to still get people to come to an area if there’s even a faint glimmer of hope of something that’s wonderful.”

The Cornell team hasn’t given up on finding an ivorybill in Arkansas and, in fact, will return to the Big Woods for the winter-spring search season of 2006-2007, albeit with greatly reduced support. And despite the lack of success in Arkansas, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to fund searches in possibly suitable habitat in several other southern states, with the goal of determining once and for all whether the ivorybill lives. Cornell plans to send out a traveling SWAT team to advise local searchers in places such as Florida’s Choctawhatchee River Basin, site of a flurry of recent unconfirmed sightings.

As Ron Rohrbaugh says, Cornell has developed some “pretty sophisticated” technology to search for ivorybills. That technology, though, works for both positive and negative results. Remote camera techniques painstakingly created by the search team have shown that the kind of bark scaling once thought to be the work of ivorybills is also commonly done by pileateds. High-tech audio analysis has shown how many species of common birds—especially blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, and red-winged blackbirds—make sounds that can fool a listener into thinking that an ivorybill was the source. (Understandably, some believers ask how blue jays, noted mimics, could imitate a bird that had been extinct for decades.) Either way, Cornell’s improved techniques could end up, during upcoming regionwide searching, primarily gathering evidence that the ivory-billed woodpecker is indeed extinct.

There’s more at stake here than the existence or absence of a single species. University of Kansas ornithologist Mark Robbins, one of Cornell’s most acerbic critics, says he got involved in the controversy primarily “because I’m so disgusted that we’re taking money from species that aren’t extinct, that are in trouble” elsewhere in the federal endangered species program.

A serious push has been under way in Congress for some time to revise the Endangered Species Act (eviscerate it, conservationists say), and some worry that the ivorybill episode could give ammunition to politicians and pundits who might claim that environmentalists overreact, abuse and manipulate science, and use scare tactics to achieve their goals.

David Sibley isn’t completely gloomy, though. He says that as long as the situation “doesn’t blow up into some conspiracy theory or scandal that’s going to damage conservation, I think that in the long run some good will come out of it. I have a lot of faith in people and our ability to move on from things like this. I think that the attention that has been focused on the Big Woods and the habitat is good.”

That attention is what Cornell’s John Fitzpatrick was talking about when he said, “This is a conservation story and a science story, not a bird-watching story.” Skeptics charge that Fitzpatrick is guilty of “mission creep,” changing the focus of the project to distract from the possibility that the ivorybill doesn’t exist. It might be partly true—but I will testify that he’s been saying the same thing from the day I met him back in March 2004. In that time of excitement and confidence, he repeatedly used the analogy that “the media totally missed the story on the spotted owl.” The issue wasn’t “the poor little brown-eyed bird,” he said, but the ongoing destruction of the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. The issue with the ivorybill, he said, is expanding the protected areas in the Big Woods of Arkansas.

“Is it possible,” Fitzpatrick asks, “that we could bring back in the United States of America one big piece of land that looks like it did when Audubon was here? The answer is yes. There’s the place to do it. And whether or not the ivorybill ends up persisting out there is totally irrelevant. What the ivorybill tells us is not irrelevant. It tells us that we have opportunities that we can take, or we can not take. We should take them.”

Many would agree that conserving the Big Woods is an admirable goal. It might be argued, though, that the existence of the ivorybill is hardly irrelevant to the people who cried when they heard of its rediscovery, or to the people linked to the story. Melanie Driscoll was recruited for a secret assignment and watched a bird fly across a forest opening for about four seconds. She believes in the sightings that were the basis of the rediscovery announcement, but she’s also realistic enough to give voice to the possibility that, if the ivorybill isn’t seen again, history will say that “this was mass hysteria, that nobody saw what they thought they saw, that the ivorybill did go extinct 60 years ago, or 25 years ago, and we just didn’t know it at the time.”

If another search season passes with no indisputable proof, it’s inevitable that more people will come to believe that the Arkansas ivorybill was just another in a long series of false alarms and cases of mistaken identity. You don’t have to be a mathematician to make up your own odds that the Bayou DeView ivorybill happened to be the last living individual of its species. Arguments will continue for years, though, because no one will ever be able to prove that there was not an ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas in 2004 and 2005.

For its part, the Cornell team points out that it never claimed anything other than that there was a single individual present on seven particular days during a span of 14 months. Since then, as more than one Cornell staffer said to me, “the bird could have been hit by a truck on Interstate 40.”

In the big woods, another spring will bring new leaves to the towering Nuttall oaks and sweet gums and centuries-old bald cypresses. Black bears will emerge from their dens in massive hollow sycamores, and bald eagle chicks will beg for food from their parents. Swallow-tailed kites and Swainson’s warblers will build nests, cottonmouths will uncoil and set off in search of unwary bullfrogs, and wood ducks will lead their young across bayous that are home to alligator gar as long as kayaks.

Searchers will keep coming, too, not just to Arkansas but to South Carolina’s Congaree Swamp and Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin and the other great forests of the South. They’ll be there with their binoculars and cameras, listening, scanning the sky, their hearts jumping every time a pileated woodpecker flashes through the trees. Many will be Believers, but not all, because no bird in history has meant so much to so many people as the ivorybill—and no one, not even the Skeptics, wants to give up on the Maybe that means one last hope for the ghost bird.

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