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Ivory-billed Woodpecker, segment of Audubon painting  

"This is a rare second chance to preserve through cooperative conservation what was once thought lost forever" More...

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- by E.A. Zimmerman , based on information from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The last confirmed sighting of the majestic Ivory-billed Woodpecker was 60 years ago.  This huge bird, which has been described as a Pileated woodpecker on steroids, was encountered in 81,000 acres of primeval forest in Louisiana called the Singer Tract.  The swampy bottomland contained many snags (dead or dying trees). Beetle larvae, the Ivory’s favorite food, thrive in snags.

Ivoery-billed Woodpecker, by John James Audubon
Painting of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers by John James Audubon, from The Birds of America (1929)

The Singer sewing machine company owned the land, but had sold the logging rights to a lumber company.  After the bird was found in the Singer Tract in 1944, the National Audubon Society tried to conserve this unique habitat. They obtained a pledge of $200,000 from the governor of Louisiana to buy the trees.  The lumber company refused. Singer, which still owned the land, refused to intercede.  The forest was destroyed.  And the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was never seen again ….

Until now!  After a lifetime of searching, a lone male Ivory-billed woodpecker has apparently been discovered.  An outdoor enthusiast named Gene Sparling thought he saw one while kayaking in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in the 550,000 acre Big Woods region of Arkansas. News of his sighting quickly traveled over the Internet to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

A research team was formed.  One member was Bobby Harrison. On February 27, 2004, as Sparling paddled ahead, a huge black-and-white woodpecker flew across the bayou less than 70 feet in front of Harrison and a team mate. Afterwards, Harrison sat down on a log, put his face in his hands and began to sob, saying, “I saw an ivory-bill. I saw an ivory-bill.'"

Loss of habitat, forest fragmentation, and the bird collecting fad almost made the Ivory-billed extinct. In 1924, an ornithologist Arthur Allen and his wife found a pair of Ivory-billeds in Florida. Unfortunately, a pair of local taxidermists also found the birds, got a permit and shot both of them.
Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed woodpecker is reinvigorating conservation efforts. It is a vivid reminder that we can learn from the past, and that it is not too late to make a difference.  According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, “finding the bird again gives us the opportunity to help right a wrong; it gives us opportunity to restore a broad ecosystem in an effort to bring the bird back from the brink. “ "This is a rare second chance to preserve through cooperative conservation what was once thought lost forever," said Secretary of the Dept. of Interior Gale Norton said. A partnership has been formed.  Norton has proposed that more than $10 million in federal funds be committed to protect the bird.  This would supplement $10 million already donated by private sector groups and citizens to research and habitat protection efforts.  Federal funds will be used for research and monitoring, recovery planning and public education.  In addition, the money will be used to enhance law enforcement and conserve habitat through conservation easements, safe-harbor agreements and conservation reserves.

Visit http://www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory to see the ghostly video footage, hear the distinctive double-rap, and find out more about this amazing discovery.

...when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.
- William Beebe, 1906


Originally published in The New Roxbury Land Trust newsletter, 2005

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Last updated October 25, 2016

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