The elusive ivory-billed woodpecker


DEWITT, Ark. — The search goes on in earnest.

While this particular search one was in the White River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in southeast Arkansas, it's part of a larger effort to resurrect the ivory-billed woodpecker — a species previously thought to have become extinct after World War II, before supposedly being spotted alive in 2005.

Helicopters flew 10 days and covered thousands of acres in early February, looking for the elusive and mysterious woodpecker, the third largest in the world. For a bird that was once iconic in the Big Woods (a 550,000-acre tract of bottomland hardwood forest) and considered extinct since the mid-1900s, it has received tremendous attention and funding over the past few years.

It started in 2004, when a birder in Arkansas claimed he saw an ivory-billed, which endured 50 years of rumors that some survived. The rumors quickly turned both addicting and government funded when John W. Fitzpatrick of the Ithaca, N.Y.-based Cornell Lab of Ornithology made this declaration: "This is confirmed. This is dead-solid confirmed. I can't begin to tell you how thrilling it is. It's thrilling beyond words," he told the Washington Post.

The ivory-billed woodpecker was officially back, but three years and a lack of a conclusive photo, video or sound has only added to the mystery and conspiracy theories. For every well-respected ornithologist who comes out saying they still exist, there's one who counters with a rebuttal.

But to Matt Conner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who was a part of the helicopter search that took place on the White River NWR, it doesn't matter what the public thinks — he knows it exists.

"What the photo gives us that we don't currently have is a copy to show the public," Conner said. "The reports that we get from these credible sources — to us, they're as good as a photo. The public doesn't know the people that I know. The public doesn't know the ornithologists that I know, that have said. 'Yes, we saw the bird.'

"To me, that's as good as a still image and in some cases better, with technology considered."

The search, which combined the USFWS, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, came up empty as far as photos, but certainly didn't conclude that the bird did not exist.

"My boss once told me that if I get an elephant, paint it pink, put it on this refuge and give you a day — or even a week to find it — you may or may not find it," Conner said of the over 300,000 acres that are considered livable habitat for the ivory-billed. "As ridiculous as that sounds, this place is that huge."

In fact, most of the participants in the $30,000-plus search, which came out of a multi-million dollar budget the government allotted in the search for a bird once considered to be extinct, didn't expect to capture a photo of it.

The pilots flew with strict instructions not to cover the same area twice, no matter how promising it seemed, because it didn't want to disturb what Cornell now considers an endangered species. But Martjan Lammertink, a longtime ivory-billed chaser and employee of Cornell, said they don't know enough about the woodpecker to make an educated guess of where it might be.

Most of what is known about the ivory-billed woodpecker came from James T. Tanner's extensive, two-year study of the bird shortly before it was considered extinct in the early 1930s. Lammertink said while Tanner's work was thorough and helpful, it was on only two nests — and didn't give the adequate information needed to find a small animal in such a big area.

"A lot of the search effort is based on what we learned from Tanner, but it's entirely possible that his research is not a good representation on the entire species," Lammertink said. "We look at the general patterns among all the other species of woodpecker and apply it to the ivory-bill.

"It would help so much to pinpoint just one or two birds so we could study their behavior. I think finding additional birds is going to be a whole lot easier once we find the first."

Conner said the search is one of the most exciting "second chances" that has happened in the conservation world in quite some time, but he's not surprised they haven't been able to pinpoint the woodpecker's home, despite the amazing number of ornithologists (in the high teens) searching the area every day.

"A lot of people who spend a lot of time out here will ask me, 'Well, how could you not have seen it, when you've got all these people looking?'" Conner said. "So, I'll ask them how many bears they've seen and usually answer in the single digits.

"Well, there are 300 bears on the [White River Refuge]. And that's talking about a mammal that weighs over 300 pounds and doesn't fly."

But even with the long odds, Conner said it's not anywhere near a waste of money to search for the ivory-bill. He pointed to the success stories of both the black bear and the bald eagles, which were once in the single digits in Arkansas but have since thrived in numbers under the care of the USFWS and the AGFC.

"If we had all these credible sources that have seen this bird and we did nothing, we would be irresponsible," Conner said of the USFWS. "It would be ridiculous if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission said, 'Nah, we don't have the time or money.'

"We need to do our part to look and we need to make sure we did everything possible. We're not chasing something that is improbable.

"We're not trying to make a story out of something that isn't there. We are just doing what the American public has entrusted us to do with its resources, which is take the best possible care of them that we can."

The official, six-man ground search that Cornell had deployed on the White River Refuge concluded at the end of April, but the never-ending search for a woodpecker that once was, and possibly still is, remains in high gear. There are more searches in more areas, and according to Conner, the search won't stop anytime soon because it means too much to those looking.

There have been animals brought back from the classification of endangered, but to bring back something that was considered extinct is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"With the ivory-billed woodpecker, we're looking at a potential grand slam as far as species that have returned," Conner said. "If we can keep that habitat and manage it the way it's supposed to be managed, I believe we can continue to have success stories.

"And we want that shot with the ivory-billed woodpecker somewhere down the line."