Searching for the Ivory Bill

Searching for the Ivory Bill

Sara Barker and a team of researchers find conclusive evidence that brings the ivory-billed woodpecker back from 'extinction'.

By Gerry Boyle ‰78

And Barker, Wilson's former student, was in the thick of it.

It should be pointed out that Barker has not seen the ivory-billed woodpecker, though one of her close colleagues at Cornell has. "I lay awake nights,— dreaming of the day, she said. But her inside account of the sightings and the painstaking scientific buttressing of the bird's rediscovery make for a cloak-and-camera detective story, an example of rigorous scientific inquiry, and a feel-good tale of cooperative conservation.

The ivory-billed woodpecker may be elusive now, but in its time it was one big, showy bird. Twenty inches long, with a red Woody Woodpecker crest, prominent white bill, and startling black and white wings, the birds caught the eye of naturalist and artist John James Audubon when he prowled southern rivers in the 1820s. But the birds declined with the logging of forests in the South, and by the 1890s ivory bills had become rare.

President Theodore Roosevelt saw the birds on a hunting trip in northeastern Louisiana in 1907. "They were noisy but wary, and they seemed to me to set off the wildness of the swamp as much as any of the beasts of the chase,— the outdoorsman wrote. By 1935 the birds had dwindled to the point that the founder of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Arthur "Doc— Allen, and others camped underneath an ivory-bill nest in Louisiana, recording and photographing the birds with the refrigerator-sized equipment of the time. Subsequent observations were made in 1944, the last time the bird's presence was irrefutably documented—until last year.

During the ivory-bill search, Sara Barker ‰94 confers with her husband and fellow Cornell ornithologist, Elliott Swarthout.
Over the last six decades, there have been tantalizing reports of sightings of ivory-billed woodpeckers in the southern U.S. and in remote mountains of Cuba. The more credible sightings have prompted all-out searches, including one by a Cornell team dispatched to the Pearl River region of Louisiana in 2002. That team found ivory-bill evidence (large tree cavities and trees with bark peeled rather than chiseled), but no birds.

Then last year an expert birder named Gene Sparling reported in great detail sighting an ivory bill during a kayaking trip on the Cache River in Arkansas. A subsequent search by two more experts, including Cornell's Tim Gallagher, yielded another sighting—one so definite, so momentous that it left the scientists in tears. It also provided a video, shot from a canoe, that scientists say shows an ivory-billed woodpecker in flight.

"Tim came back and went into our director's office and our director honestly thought [Gallagher] was going to tell him he had an incurable disease,— Barker said. "He was white, gaunt, looked like he'd seen a ghost.—

And Gallagher had, in a way. The bird that had flown past him had been nothing more than a specter for 60 years. Within minutes, hushed phone calls were being made. One of those calls was to Barker, in her book-lined office on the second-floor of the lab. A decade after leaving Colby to begin her ornithology career, she was about to embark on the conservation experience of a lifetime.

Barker grew up on a country farm outside of Cleveland. As a child she rode horses, carried home stray animals, watched birds at her grandmother's bird feeder. A competitive athlete (an attribute that would prove helpful in her future career), Barker came to Colby planning to do science—maybe physical therapy—and to ski race. She had already moved from medical science to the environmental side when she did a program for field biologists in Kenya the first semester of her junior year. In the field most of her time in Africa, Barker learned to identify 120 different birds by sight and sound. Barker returned to Colby and her life took another irrevocable step when she took an ornithology course taught by Wilson. "Something about that guy,— Barker said, smiling as she recalled her first professional mentor. "I've talked to Sarah Goodwin ['04], another Colby grad who works at the lab now. The first thing we said to each other was, 'Herb!' I loved his ornithology class, our birding trips and excursions. He's such a nice guy, so bright, so sincere. There's just some loveable quality about him.—

Wilson, for his part, still can recall Barker's enthusiasm and delight as she began to learn about birds and their behaviors. "She was absolutely captured by birds, no question about it,— he said.

Barker's passion for birds led to a summer internship at the Cleveland Zoo. Her assignment: figure out why the zoo's Chilean flamingos weren't reproducing. "I actually made a lot of environmental suggestions, changes to their habitat—the pen they were in, the vegetation. They had greater reproductive success the next year. Whether I can attribute it to my work, I don't know.—