Lifestyle

Bird thought extinct is found

``We have conclusive proof that the ivory-billed has survived into the 21st century.'' The words of John Fitzpatrick of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology jumped at me from my computer screen on the morning of April 28. That one sentence seemed more than I could comprehend. For my whole life this woodpecker, last seen in 1944, had been considered extinct. Could it really have come alive again in the lowland forests of Arkansas? Excitement rushed over me as I finished reading the press release and clicked to the mentioned Web site, ivorybill.org. A banner announcing ``Found'' flashed across my screen.

Immediately the name ``Lord God Bird'' came to mind. The moniker was given the ivory-billed years ago, prompted by viewers' excitement at seeing the majestic and elusive woodpecker. After the last universally accepted sighting in 1944, as the bird went ``extinct,'' the term Lord God Bird attached itself even more tightly as phantom, unproven sightings lingered around this bird, the Holy Grail of North American bird-watchers. Sixty years is a long time for any species to hide out in deep forests, away from human observation but especially for a large, flashy bird. I calculated that about 10 generations of this bird must have come and gone since it was last observed.

The ivory-billed is the largest woodpecker in North America, 3 inches longer, but nearly twice the weight -- just over a pound -- of the runner-up, the pileated woodpecker. Sassy red crests adorn the males' heads on both species, but the ivory-billed's wings have distinguishing large white patches contrasting with its black body.

Early Native Americans of the southeastern United States hunted the woodpecker for its ivory-colored bill, thought to possess magical powers. The birds' feathers were harvested by colonial Americans to decorate women's hats. But the main reason the woodpecker nearly went extinct was consistent, widespread logging of lowland forests across its original habitat stretching from Texas to Florida and reaching as far north as the Ohio River.

On the ivory-billed Web site I clicked a button marked ``video.'' Footage of views of Arkansas' swampy Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, where the bird had been sighted splashed across the screen. Recordings of the bird's call, a harsh, nasal kent, kent-kent, kent, filled my ears while the camera panned across bare tree trunks emerging from the swampy bayou.

The video next focused on a seasoned outdoorsman, Gene Sparling, the first person to rediscover the bird, just over a year ago in April 2004. As he paddled a kayak through the swamp and described the sighting, I was overcome with bird-watchers' envy. I, too, wanted to see this bird. In my mind, I packed my car, tossed my kayak on top and started driving to Arkansas.

As the video continued describing how the species' existence was confirmed with a few more sightings over the past year, I began to worry about the ivory-billed. Some bird-watchers are fanatical about seeing a new bird, and the Lord God Bird, newly risen from the death of extinction, would soon become the world's most coveted bird. I imagined throngs of bird-watchers clad in camouflage gear, with binoculars bouncing around their necks, thrashing through the swamps playing tapes of the bird's call, and forcing the poor ivory-billed to cower in the top of a tree. Next images of hunters stalking the trophy bird flooded into my mind.

I peered intently as the video switched to footage showing the ivory-billed flying off between tree trunks. The image wasn't clear; the bird was far away and out of focus. Evidently, a camera was left running and happened to pick up this momentous event among thousand of hours of bird-less trees and water. But the distinctive black-and-white wing pattern was unmistakable. Pileateds, which live in my neighborhood and which I see almost daily, don't flash such large white top-of-the-wing patterns. Over and over again, I played the section showing the ivory-billed flying away through the trees before it disappeared from sight. For a moment, I felt that I was in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge, experiencing this bird myself.

As much as I crave a chance to seek out the ivory-billed woodpecker, I love the bird enough to leave it alone. Through the video I can imagine myself in the presence of this magnificent species, which makes it easier to put the good of the bird ahead of my desires. During the year since the bird was rediscovered more land has been purchased around the refuge and measures put in place to restrict public access. These necessary precautions were put in place before the scientific community announced the existence of the woodpecker to us crazy-to-see-new-birds public.

As the video concluded, I felt wondrously optimistic. If this big, flashy woodpecker and 10 generations of its family could find a home in our broken-up, cut-down forests, perhaps there is hope for other bird species in danger of going extinct. It's as if the ivory-billed held on and survived long enough for us humans to evolve more mindfulness and responsibility for habitat conservation. We've been awarded another chance, like an unexpected gift, to understand the value of protecting natural habitat.

Every year the forests in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge are aging, offering more stands of suitable old-tree habitat for the Lord God Birds. My hope is that one day the species will expand its population. Perhaps, then future human generations can travel to the refuge and be welcomed in to observe the many families of ivory-billed woodpeckers. They won't have to see this bird only through a computer screen.

Frances Wood is the author of ``Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West,'' available in local bookstores. She can be reached at wood@whidbey.com.

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