Ivory Bill

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(HOST) Commentator Ted Levin is thrilled by reports of the sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the wild – instead of a museum.

(LEVIN) I’ve seen three ivory-billed woodpeckers in my lifetime. The first was behind glass in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The long, thick bill was so bonelike, that my nine-year- old son Jordy called it “the tusk.” The male had a blood-red crest, the female midnight black. The bird’s black plumage was broken by a pair of white stripes behind the eye that ran down either side of the neck, over the back, before merging into huge white wing patches. The eyes were yellow.

The second sighting was at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. The woodpecker stood beside five other extinct species.

Last Thursday, when Science online published the account of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in the swampy woods of northeastern Arkansas, I was stunned.

Numerous reports have surfaced in the southeast for decades, some quite convincing – like Vermont catamount sightings – but none could be verified. The last confirmed ivory bill was documented in Louisiana in 1944, where a few lingered in woods that were later converted to soybeans. A Cuban subspecies of the ivory bill was rediscovered in mountains near Guantanamo Naval Base in the late 1980s, but hasn’t been seen since.

Historically, ivory-billed woodpeckers were thinly distributed in the Southeast as far north as southern Illinois and Indiana. The birds were hunted for food, for museums and for ornaments. Native Americans loved those gleaming bills. And their habitat, the forests of Faulkner, have been logged.

Most field guides picture the ivory bill along side the smaller pileated and state: “presumed extinct”. Sibley’s, the finest guide available, doesn’t even mention it.

The ivory-billed woodpecker has become the “Holy Grail” of birders. For years, birders have searched the southeast with religious devotion. As recently as 2001, a major expedition of scientists, financed by an optics company, spent a year combing the swamps of Louisiana believed the most likely spot for an ivory bill. They found nothing.

My third ivory-billed woodpecker was part of a diorama in the Dallas Natural History Museum. Bird and habitat. A three-dimensional still-life. The swamp, the eerie light, a pair of black and white woodpeckers perched on the trunk of a cypress.

When Tim Gallagher, my editor at Living Bird, the quarterly publication of Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology, and his companion Bobby Harrison verified the Arkansas ivory-billed woodpecker on February 27, 2004, they sat in their canoe and wept.

And at that moment, my world expanded – the way it did several years ago when a jaguar was photographed in southeastern New Mexico. Ivory-billed woodpeckers surviving into the 21st century gives hope for all wildlands and wild things.

It was like verifying Elvis at the mall.

This is Ted Levin from Coyote Hollow in Thetford Ctr.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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