[percy-l] Percy's woodpecker
marcus at loyno.edu
marcus at loyno.edu
Fri Apr 29 09:08:24 EDT 2005
Many Percy readers will recall this scene near the end of
Love in the Ruins when they read the story about the
(apparent) susvival of the great ivory-billed woodpecker.
Before the bus comes, a new orange Toyota stops to give me a
lift. It is Colley Wilkes, super-Bantu. He and his
light-colored wife, Fran, are on their way to Honey Island
for the Christmas bird count. A pair of binoculars and a
camera with massive telephoto lens lie on the Sunday Times
between them. A tape plays Rudolf Friml. The Wilkes are
dressed in sports togs. Fran sits around catercornered, leg
tucked under her, to see me. "You catch us on the crest of
the wave," she tells me. "We are ten feet high. Our minds
"Tell J1im, Colley."
"We found him, Tom," says Colley portentously. "By George,
we found him."
"He's alive! He's come back! After fill these years!" "Who?"
This morning, hauling up a great unclassified beast of a
fish, I thought of Christ coming again at the end of the
world and how it is that in every age there is the
temptation to see signs of the end and that, even knowing
this, there is nevertheless some reason, what with the
spirit of the new age being the spirit of watching and
waiting, to believe that
Colley's right hand strays over the tape deck. The smooth
shark skin at the back of his neck is pocked with pits that
are as perfectly circular as if they had been punched out
with a tiny biscuit cutter.
"Last Sunday at 6: 55 a.m.:' says Colley calmly, "exactly
four miles west of Honey Island I-saw-an-ivory-billed-wood
"Is that so?"
"No question about it"
"That is remarkable."
"Do you realize what this means?" Fran asks me.
"There has not been a verified sighting of an ivorybill
nineteen-three. Think of it."
"Wouldn't that be something now," muses Fran, breathing on
her binoculars, "to turn in a regular Christmas list, you
know, six chickadees, twenty pine warblers, two thousand
myrtle warblers, and at the end, with photo attached: one
ivory-billed woodpecker? Can't you see the Audubon brass as
they read it?"
"Of course we have to find him again. Wish us luck."
"Yes. I do."
Love in the Ruins (1971), 387-388
The bird that came back from the dead
For more than 60 years, scientists thought the ivory-billed
woodpecker was extinct. Now new evidence suggests it is
alive and well and living in Arkansas
By Steve Connor
29 April 2005 The Independent (London).
Some liken it to the avian equivalent of seeing Elvis
walking down the high street. Others say it is the Holy
Grail of birdwatching. But all are agreed on one thing: the
confirmed sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker is the
greatest ornithological observation in living memory.
The last time anyone had set eyes on this large,
black-and-white bird was back in 1944. For more than 60
years scientists had thought that the majestic ivory-billed
woodpecker of North America had gone extinct. It had
disappeared, they thought, with the huge areas of southern
forests that had been systematically logged for two
But for the past year a select coterie of ornithologists
kept secret the fact that they had a video recording of a
lone male. And yesterday they revealed that an exhaustive
scientific analysis has confirmed the bird in the video was
indeed an ivory-billed woodpecker, a species formally known
as Campephilus principalis.
"We were excited to find out that we had it on tape and
looked at it many times before we concluded that ... it was
the woodpecker and undeniably so," said Professor David
Lunneau of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Reported sightings of the woodpecker had drawn Professor
Lunneau to the huge wilderness area of eastern Arkansas
known as the Big Woods. He had kept his camcorder running
while he paddled his canoe through the swampy forests. He
knew that the bird was notoriously wily and would offer
itself to view for no more than a few seconds before it
would disappear behind trees - which was too short a time to
risk having the camcorder off.
On 25 April last year, his patience was rewarded with an
invaluable four seconds of footage showing the bird perched
on the trunk of a tupelo tree before it quickly flew away.
The camcorder recorded 11 wing beats - just 1.2 seconds of
flight - and with it captured the distinctive, white wing
markings of the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Professor John Fitzpatrick, an ornithologist at Cornell
University in Ithaca, New York, who led the investigation,
said that there was no doubt the bird in the video recording
was the genuine article. An extensive analysis, to be
published in the journal Science, shows it is the right size
and has the correct bands of white feathers on the trailing
edges of both wings, Professor Fitzpatrick said.
"This is not any old bird. This is a really special
creature. This is America's largest woodpecker, the
third-largest in the world - it's spectacularly beautiful,"
he said. "It's legendary, it's mysterious, and it's been a
majestic symbol of the old forest of the American South.
"It's powerful and a specialist on very large, dying trees
and as a consequence of that it's been rare since the
mid-1800s and was thought to be extinct as early as 1920
because we completely annihilated our southern forests
during that period."
The ivory-billed woodpecker is an imposing bird. It is
nearly two feet long from beak to tail with a wingspan of
two and a half feet. Its ivory bill is about three inches
long and its feathers are a stunning jet black and brilliant
white - with a delicate red crest on the head of males.
So dramatic is the ivory-billed woodpecker in flight that it
is sometimes called the Lord God Bird because stories are
told that when naturalists first set eyes on it, they were
often heard exclaiming: "Lord God!"
The previous authenticated sighting of the ivory-billed
woodpecker was in a remote, extensive piece of thick forest
near Madison Parish in Louisiana known as the Singer Tract -
it was owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company. A
wildlife artist called Don Eckelberry was the last person to
see one alive - a female living in section 61 of John's
Bayou just before it was logged in 1944.
Since then there have been sporadic reports of sightings -
particularly of a sub-species in Cuba - but nothing
confirmed and everyone thought it had become one of the six
North American birds suspected, or known, to have gone
extinct since 1880.
"Its disappearance coincided with the systematic
annihilation of virgin tall forests across the south-eastern
United States between 1880 and the 1940s," scientists said.
Then, at about 1.30pm on 11 February 2004, an amateur
birdwatcher, Gene Sparling III of Hot Springs, Arkansas, saw
something dramatic as he was kayaking alone on a bayou
(tributary) in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in
Monroe County. He spotted an unusuallarge, red-crested
woodpecker flying towards him which landed near the base of
a tree about 20 metres away. He immediately suspected from
field markings that he had seen an ivory-billed woodpecker.
He posted his observations on an obscure bird website which
a week later attracted the attention of Tim Gallagher, the
editor of Cornell's magazine, Living Bird, and Bobby
Harrison, an ornithologist at Oakwood College, Huntsville,
On 27 February 2004, after interviewing Mr Sparling and
convinced he had really seen an ivory-bill, the two
scientists set off down the same bayou. To their utter
amazement a large, black-and-white woodpecker flew in front
of their boat just 70 feet away.
They decided to make field sketches and notes independently
of one another to see if they had both seen the same thing.
Then they compared sketches. "When we finished our notes,
Bobby sat down on a log, put his face in his hands and began
to sob, saying, 'I saw an ivory-bill. I saw an ivory-bill',"
Dr Gallagher said.
"Just to think this bird made it into the 21st century gives
me chills. It's like a funeral shroud has been pulled back,
giving us a glimpse of a living bird, rising Lazarus-like
from the grave."
But as convinced as the two ornithologists were, they knew
the wider world would need much harder evidence than hastily
drawn field notes. One of the problems with previous reports
was that another black-and-white bird species, the pileated
woodpecker, lives in the same area and can easily be
confused with an ivory-bill.
Professor Lunneau decided that capturing the bird on camera
was the only way of providing the definitive proof. Although
his video recording - described, not altogether unfairly, as
"crummy" by Professor Fitzpatrick - lacks professional
clarity, it nevertheless enabled scientists to confirm the
sighting based on five distinctive diagnostic features of
The scientists even went back to the same location to place
a dummy ivory-billed woodpecker on the same tree to make
sure the one in the film was the correct size. Above all,
however, it was the distinctive white feathers on the
trailing edges of the bird's wing that convinced the
specialists that they had truly captured their quarry.
"Throughout the 20th century, it has been every birder's
fantasy but it seemed impossibly remote to catch a glimpse
of this bird. So this is really the Holy Grail for birds,"
Professor Fitzpatrick said. "Mysteries remain. We don't know
how many birds there are out there. But the important point
is that the lifespan of large woodpeckers rarely exceeds 15
"So this bird clearly had a mommy and a daddy that
successfully bred sometime in the 1990s or this century.
That means there was breeding activity long after everyone
thought this bird was gone."
In a world where species extinction and habitat destruction
have gone hand in glove, the re-discovery of a once-lost
icon of ancient wilderness offers new hope for the natural
Conservationists believe that the worst may even be over for
the ivory-billed woodpecker because recent attempts to
reforest this part of the American continent have improved
its habitat, in particular increasing the number of old,
naturally decaying trees on which the bird depends for food
and nesting sites. During the next 10 years, some 200,000
acres of forest in the Big Woods of Arkansas are expected to
be restored to their former pristine glory.
Although only one bird has been sighted at any one time, and
it may be the same male, scientists believe there may be a
sparse colony of breeding pairs in the region. During 7,000
hours of search time, there have been 15 sightings and on
three occasions ornithologists have heard the distinctive
double raps of the birds as they drum out their display
calls to one another.
"This is remarkable and absolutely wonderful. Extinction is
for ever, but here - miraculously - is a second chance,"
said Professor Tim Birkhead, a leading ornithologist at
Sheffield University, adding: "Conservationists and
government have got to deal properly with this amazing
opportunity. They have to ensure that the habitat and the
woodpecker is protected, and to do that, they also have let
people see it. This is the best bit of news from the natural
world I've had for a long time."
So far, the search for the Lord God Bird has covered only 16
of the 850 square miles of the forests of Arkansas.
Scientists hope that in years to come, they will be able to
report sightings of breeding pairs over a wide area - and
only then will they be able to sleep secure in the knowledge
that the species is truly capable of making a comeback.
For Professor Fitzpatrick, the return of the Lord God Bird
is nothing short of a miracle. "All of the lure of the wild
and the lure of the hunt and the lure of the beauty of
birds, and lure of the mysterious and possibly gone, is
enveloped in the idea that this bird is there," he said.
Alistair Gammell, international director of the Royal
Society for the Protection of Birds, said the confirmed
sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker would be celebrated
by bird lovers around the world.
"This bird's rediscovery is not quite like finding a dodo,
but it comes very, very close. Thrillingly, we now have a
chance to save this magnificent species. The world must
seize this unique opportunity," he added.
Frank Gill, a senior ornithologist at the Audubon Society in
America, put it even more succinctly: "This is huge. Just
huge. It is kind of like finding Elvis."
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