Last week I was browsing through the latest issue of “Bird Watcher’s Digest” magazine and saw an article marking the ten year anniversary the sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the swamps of eastern Arkansas. The author, Jerry Baker, emeritus professor at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, had interviewed two of the people who supposedly saw the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the White River drainage of eastern Arkansas. One gentleman claimed to have seen the bird and the other had a poor quality videotape to back up a quick glimpse of a large woodpecker flying ahead of his boat.
Nine years ago, I wrote an article for my column about whether the sighting of these large woodpeckers was “phantom” or “reality.” At the time, the sighting of the 60 year extinct woodpecker was a hot topic of reporting in the various media outlets, including a documentary story on CBS’s “Sixty Minutes.” I was very skeptical at that time and thought the whole episode was a matter of “wishful thinking” rather than based on true science. One Florida ornithologist wrote an article that the whole story was more “faith based” than reality, which supported my thinking.
In the following four to five years after the reported sightings, tens of thousands of hours of searches were conducted in the swamps where the birds were “seen.” Not one credible bit of evidence came from this massive bird hunt that supported the possible presence of these likely extinct woodpeckers. Over the past fifty or more years many sightings of the rare Ivory-billed Woodpeckers have been reported, but not one of these reports has any documentation. Many birders’ believe that documented reports have been kept secret to keep thousands of birders from chasing what they believe is a date with destiny.
The interviews brought out one very interesting point – neither of the two finders believed at the time of their sightings that the birds were ivory-bills. After a period of time of hearing other birders give their opinions that the sighting could be Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, the men came to believe that they had really seen the extinct bird. After spending many years of being treated as celebrities for their discoveries, they are holding to the belief that the stories are true. I hold to my first contention that the discoverers are still wishful thinkers.
One person spent much time traveling around the nation raising money to support protecting potential Ivory-bill Woodpecker habitat for land conservation projects. I applaud him and his helpers for raising awareness of birds that might be in trouble or could reach endangered status in the future and doing something to help these birds survive. All birders want to believe and hope that somewhere in some dark and dreary swamp from Texas to Florida, a few of these woodpeckers may still be hiding.
I feel very confident that this scenario may happen again and if it does, we can all enjoy the moment. Because these birders created much excitement among the millions of birders around the world, we could all enjoy the moment with them. It is always sad to learn or to be convinced that some bird species have become extinct. We have three birds in Texas, the Golden-cheeked Warbler, Black-capped Vireo and Whooping Cranes, that have been listed as being endangered. We need to be aware of what we can do to protect their habitats, so that they do not meet the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
The memory of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker lives on in the minds of all birders. For example, every time I see a Pileated Woodpecker in East Texas, I check the bill color and white wing patches to make sure it is a Pileated Woodpecker. Just having that query in mind in a way pays tribute to the large woodpecker’s historic cousin.