Occasionally, a wildlife story gets real news coverage in both the print and broadcast media. Last week, ivory-billed woodpeckers did just that. Stories about a 30-day expedition into the swamps of Louisiana for ivory-bill woodpeckers appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today, and on the evening news. The reason for the coverage -- a well organized hunt for a bird the ornithological community has considered extinct in the U.S. for 50 years.
Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to Birds describes ivory-bills as, "Very close to extinction, if indeed, it still exists." The description in National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America reads, "Thought now to be extinct in North America." And David Allen Sibley's best selling, instant classic, The Sibley Guide to Birds, doesn't even illustrate ivory-billed woodpeckers. It's included only in a list of nine extinct species.
Reason for search: So why is Zeiss Sports Optics sponsoring a 30-day quest to track down a species that doesn't exist? Many optimistic birders have reported seeing ivory-bills over the last five decades.
Invariably, however, the bird in question has turned out to be a pileated woodpecker, another large, red-crested, black and white woodpecker. But pileateds are relatively common in large wooded areas. I see or hear one almost every day from my back porch.
The confusion is understandable, but there are some obvious differences. Ivory-bills are about three inches longer than pileateds (20 inches vs. 17 inches), have an ivory colored bill, and have large white wing patches visible while the bird is at rest. A pileated's bill is dark and its white wing patches are visible only in flight.
Plus, the ivory-bill has always been restricted to old growth swamps and river bottoms in the southeast. The last one was seen in Florida in 1952. Until April 1999.
Sighting made: Almost three years ago, on April Fool's Day, David Kulivan, a forestry student and birder at Louisiana State University, was turkey hunting in the 35,000-acre Pearl River Wildlife Management Area (PRWMA) about 40 miles from New Orleans. He watched a pair of large woodpeckers for about 10 minutes, and he identified them as a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers.
One of his critical observations was that the female had a black crest. Both male and female pileateds are red-crested. Realizing the magnitude of his discovery, he held off on making his report for several days, for fear that experts would consider it an April Fool's hoax. His story was apparently convincing; it ultimately led to the current expedition, which began Jan. 17.
A team of six experts and a corps of experienced birders are combing the PRWMA from dawn to dusk in search of the elusive woodpeckers. Sophisticated recording equipment is set up throughout the area to record sounds that might otherwise be missed. If ivory-bills are rediscovered, it would be the biggest wildlife story in this country since the last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
No one would be more excited than I if the search team finds live ivory-bills. And perhaps by the time you read this, that will have occurred.
But I'm skeptical. The area has been searched many times before. And a friend who has visited the area has told me several bits of information that have not made it into the mainstream news accounts.
A problem: The 35,000-acre PRWMA is not virgin timber; most of it was logged just before World War II. And it is not one large block of wilderness; it is a relatively narrow strip of habitat along a river bisected by two interstate highways and located less than 10 minutes from a town of 30,000 people.
This hardly sounds like the old growth wilderness ivory-bills require.
Furthermore, ivory-bills are big birds; bigger than a wood duck. And during the nesting season they are quite vocal. Could they really have eluded detection by sharp-eyed and sharp-eared ornithologists and birders for 50 years? I sure hope so. I'd love to be wrong. If the Zeiss team finds ivory-bills, I'll be on the first plane to New Orleans.