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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Part 2

Air Date: Week of

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The Search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker continues.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We continue now with our search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. As producer Brenda Tremblay explains, the bird hasn't been seen in the U.S. for so long now, it's close to being declared extinct.


TREMBLAY: Jerry Jackson may well have been one of the last people to see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but he didn't get a picture. Intense surveys of Cuban forests, in 1991 and 1993, proved fruitless. A few years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called a meeting of three ornithologists: Lester Short, James Tanner and Jerry Jackson. They sought their endorsement of the Service's decision to declare the Ivory-billed Woodpecker extinct.

JACKSON: I don't really know why, except that I think they just wanted to be able to cross it off their list and not have to worry about it anymore. I guess I was the fly in the ointment of the Fish and Wildlife Service and, in response, they decided that, yeah, they really might look bad if they declared it extinct and someone found the birds. And so, the Fish and Wildlife Service funded a one-year study to examine those areas in the southeast that offered the best hope for there still being Ivory-bills. And I was given the contract to spend a year looking for Ivory-bills.


JACKSON: Well, I stretched that amount of money--I got no more money--but I stretched into two years, and actually it's been many years, because I've continued to go back and go back and go back.

TREMBLAY: Jackson plays the same tape made in the Singer tract in the 1930s, hoping for a response and hearing only echoes, mimics, and phantoms.

WOMAN: So then you would wait?

JACKSON: Yeah, we'd play it for the Red Belly responding to the Red Belly on the tape. See, the birds do respond. There's another Red Belly.

JACKSON: We were in an area, in fact, not very far from here, it's only about five miles from here, and we had been doing surveys, transects through the forest, playing this recording of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker for 45 seconds and listening for three minutes and then moving 15 minutes and doing it again. And I came to a place where the trees were incredibly large, and I played the tape. I told my graduate student, "This is by far the best habitat I've seen anywhere." And no response. And so, we started to move on, and my graduate student says, "Wait, there it is, there it is." And I said, "I don't hear anything." He said, "No, it's coming closer, he's coming closer." And we just stood there, and finally, I heard it.


JACKSON: And it was a bird repeating what we had just played, about three minutes before, on the tape, and it kept coming closer and closer until it got about maybe 100 yards from us, and then it stopped where it was, but it called repeatedly from there, for several minutes. And it wasn't coming closer. And so I said "On three, we're just going to have rush toward it and hope we can get a photo." And we did, we ran, and didn't see a thing.

Everything in me that's a scientist says it's not at all likely that there are any Ivory-bills left. But, as a human being, and as an individual, that likes to think positive, I like to hope that maybe, just maybe, out there there is a pocket of Ivory-bills still left.

SHORT: I think he's mistaken about it. I think he's an incurable optimist, I'll say that about Jerry, which is great, but not too much of a realist.

TREMBLAY: Lester Short is the Lamont Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History. He's one of the world's leading experts on woodpeckers. Like Jackson, Short caught fleeting glimpses of Ivory-bills in Cuba, in the late 1980s, but he thinks the birds he saw were part of a doomed population and he's convinced there are none left in the United States.

SHORT: When you think of the mobility of the birdwatchers in the United States and the terrific number of them and the many people who've become interested in birds, hunters and others who go into the back country, and the fact that the birds need to have a place to breed. If they produce young, the young have to move away from the parents. And these are big birds that are conspicuous. So, I don't think that any place can be so remote from people that they could be hanging on and not be seen over the years.

TREMBLAY: But is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker really extinct? Could there be an undiscovered pair in some deep southern swamp, in the remote forests of South Carolina or in the Florida Panhandle?

JAMES: Hope springs eternal and sometimes, you have to face reality.

TREMBLAY: Douglas James is a professor of biology and ornithologist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, in the upper regions of the Ivory-bill's former habitat. Though he believes the Ivory-bill's demise was hastened by man's interference, James says its extinction may have been fated from the very beginning.

JAMES: Like all other groups of birds that are endangered and becoming extinct, it's always the largest one that's most endangered, like the Whooping Crane, the largest crane, the Trumpeter Swan, the largest swan, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the largest woodpecker. And this has been going on for millions of years, since the Pleistocene age and geological age. I see it as sort of a continuation of a process that's been going on for several million years.

TREMBLAY: Greg Budney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology disagrees.

BUDNEY: The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was probably not a bird that was following such a narrow path that it was doomed to extinction. In all likelihood, it has to do with human manipulation of the habitat. The loss of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is an indication that something has changed in a substantial way in the environment. So it was an indicator of the integrity of the habitat. And when you lose that, it's a sign that should direct our attention to look at what impacts, what pressures, are occurring in this particular habitat to cause this animal to disappear.


HEYEN: I don't know where I saw it first, maybe in a Peterson's or maybe in some other bird book, a picture of an Ivory-bill. And it's a sharp, vivid image in mind, and, of course, representative of so much, now, that we've lost.


TREMBLAY: William Heyen is a poet and professor at the State University of New York in Brockport. In his collection of poems, "Pterodactyl Rose," Heyen wrote about endangered and extinct species, including the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

HEYEN: But when I ate the Dodo, I could not ingest its gentleness and trust. Genes lost voyages ago sometimes seem to snag in my human heart, idle lawns of Easters past. But, Passenger Pigeon's eggs wink in a vanished series, and the Ivory-bill cries in the vacuum of its skies not at all.


HEYEN: You know, I was brought up on Long Island, and in the center of the island, when my boyhood was all ponds and woods. And now I return and I see what has happened to the places where I once had my imagination and had my being. And all of us have this story in us. I mean, this is an American story.

[MUSIC: Coyote Oldman, "Rolling Earth," (LIMEWIRE)]]

TREMBLAY: We don't want the story to be true. Jerry Jackson and the others who still search want this story to end differently.

JACKSON: Sometimes I'm looked at a little bit askance--yeah, you're crazy, fella. Or with a little bit of disbelief that you believe there might still be Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. How about the trolls under the bridge, too?

TREMBLAY: Do you doubt yourself sometime?

JACKSON: No. I guess that's part of being successful and part of being a scientist: if I doubted myself, I wouldn't be out here looking for them, wading through the chiggers and the ticks and the snakes in the water.

TREMBLAY: For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay reporting.




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