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

Nothing else, the team had concluded, other than an ivory-billed woodpecker, flapping out of the hazy past and into the living, breathing present.

The ivory-billed woodpecker went public in April. Like many of the team members, Swarthout, Barker's husband, had been in Arkansas for five straight months. For the duration of the search, Barker had switched from the Big Woods bayous to Cornell in three-week stints.

The last photograph of an ivory-bill Woodpecker, Singer Tract, Louisiana 1935.
Back in New York, the team cleaned up and excitedly prepared to meet the media. Barker e-mailed her family-and-friends list the night prior to the Washington press conference. Her message: "You want to listen to NPR in the morning.— Along with thousands of others across the country and the world, they did. Barker's mysterious comings and goings of the past months finally were explained.

By June the media frenzy had eased, and the Cornell members of the team had settled back in at the lab, a sprawling faux-barn sort of building on the wooded outskirts of Ithaca. There was a sense of calm elation among the scientists, who were fielding hundreds of congratulatory e-mails, sorting through sheaves of expense receipts from Arkansas—and trying to figure out what to do next.

The party was over; the ivory bill was here to stay.

Moving from extinction to the brink of it, a creature suddenly joins the ranks of highly protected endangered species. In the case of the ivory-billed woodpecker, plans were set in motion before the announcement to form a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery team. With the newly formed Big Woods Conservation Partnership—made up of Cornell scientists, Arkansas conservation officials, and The Nature Conservancy—federal scientists came up with a plan of habitat protection, public access, and continued searching for clues of the ivory bills' behavior in the 21st century. How had the birds adapted to their vastly reduced habitat? Had their feeding habits changed? What sort of range does an ivory-billed woodpecker now have?

One of the first steps, undertaken by Swarthout, field supervisor for the ivory-billed woodpecker study, involved writing a comprehensive report on the Arkansas search and habitat for the feds. "We're trying to describe what lessons we learned from last season,— said Swarthout, a soft-spoken ornithologist who has worked extensively with another endangered species—the Mexican spotted owl. "What went well, what didn't, how we can improve it.—

The intent, of course, is to return to Arkansas in the fall to continue the search. The hope is that the team will see the ivory bill again and will see a second specimen, if possible. After all, it's unlikely but possible (until proven otherwise) that the birds on the video and audio are the last in existence. Barker, who observed one of the last wild Hawaiian crows, doesn't think so. "I believe there's more than one,— she said. "I just don't think we've found it yet. I can't say how many but I honestly believe that if they've persisted for this long, there has to be a breeding pair out there.—

Ivory bills have a large home range, she said. The area where the bird was seen is a long narrow corridor. She hopes that somewhere in the deep, dark swamps, the birds are roosting and nesting. And if they are there, perhaps one day Barker will see one?

She waved the idea off as though it were too much to wish for, at least aloud. "As much as I would love to see the bird, it's not about me,— Barker said. "I just want us to be able to learn more about the ecology of the bird and continue to preserve its habitat. If I don't see it, just to know that I've been involved in the efforts that have brought about habitat conservation is enough for me, really. As much as the birder in me wants to see this bird, it's still more about the effort than anything else. And about what it can do for conservation.—

She noted that the area where the ivory-billed woodpecker was seen was slated to be dredged in the 1980s, but Nature Conservancy efforts kept it intact. Now the ivory bill serves as an example of what can be accomplished—that in the area of conservation, it's still possible for dreams to become reality.

"This is as hopeful as it gets for someone in my field," Barker said. "It's a tough field to be in sometimes because you see a lot of things disappearing, a lot of habitat destruction. There's a lot of negativity, so to have something like this, to think that we haven't destroyed it all, that this bird still persists—there's so much hope out there. It's such a positive message.—

Read more about the search for the ivory-billed wookpecker.
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