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

For ornithologists, conservationists, and backyard birders, it would be a dream come true. After more than 60 years of presumed extinction, the ivory-billed woodpecker was reported spotted by expert birders in a dense Arkansas swamp. It appeared that "the Grail Bird,— a ghostly symbol of one of America's ravaged natural habitats, had returned from the past.

Within days Sara Barker '94, a project leader at the Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity at Cornell University, had begun recruiting the team that would search for and collect evidence that the bird still existed. Barker's first challenge: to lure the best birders and scientists to the Arkansas Mississippi Delta without ever uttering these words: "ivory-billed woodpecker.—

"I had to convince seventeen people that they wanted to go work down in Arkansas on a 'biodiversity project,'— Barker said, back at Cornell this summer. "I couldn't tell them [in advance] what we were doing. I said, 'An inventory of bottomland hardwood swamp and bottomland hardwood forest.'—

An understatement, but true. Fourteen months later, the search teams (including Barker, an energetic former Colby ski racer) had indeed done an exhaustive—and exhausting—inventory of the wild and primeval swamps in southeastern Arkansas. They'd encountered herons, warblers, owls, flying squirrels, ducks, many poisonous snakes—and at least one ivory-billed woodpecker.

The news was big, and not just in the bird world. The official Cornell Ornithology Lab paper breaking the ivory-bill discovery was the cover story of the prestigious journal Science. The report made the front page of The New York Times and countless other newspapers around the country, was featured on National Public Radio, was heralded at a strobe-popping press conference in Washington, D.C. Nature Conservancy President Steven McCormick began his column in last summer's magazine with these words. "We've found the bird.—

So just how big a deal is this really? "I think this probably is the most exciting [bird-related] story of the last fifty years,— said Herb Wilson, the Leslie Brainerd Arey Chair in Bioscience and a nationally known ornithologist.
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