Julie Zickefoose: Nature Artist & Writer
You can think about heat like this from the comfort of an air-conditioned home or nestled in the remove of winter. But until you're out in it, it isn't real. This is the kind of heat that makes you sprint for your car and turn on the blowers to full, gasping and soaked through to the skin. Admittedly, I'm a tenderfoot; at home in Ohio, we'll have a week or two of high 90s and be done with it. Here, in deepest backwoods Florida, I am amazed to see people going about their business, even being cheery, occasionally pulling out a handkerchief to wipe their brows, but otherwise hardly acknowledging what to me is a crushing, all-defeating overlord. Add to that the hoards of mosquitoes, that have evolved with the image of a minivan in their tiny brains, knowing instinctively that within lies exposed human flesh. They ping and bing off the windows, probing with their fine needles around the weatherstripping, waiting for the window to roll down so they can flood in. I am here to watch birds in the pine-ringed cypress swamps, and so I spray myself one last time with repellent, roll down my sleeves, button up my collar, and launch myself once again into the barrage. The scope is heavy, and it cuts into my shoulder as I alternately walk and wade to the place where, by chance, I heard something yesterday, something I had never heard before.
Dusk falls faster down here. It almost feels like the tropics, the way the sun kind of lazes, then crashes down to the horizon, going from twilight to pure dark in a short period. I was sloshing down the ghost of a trail, listening to the insect chorus swelling, when I heard a high, nasal ank. It was distant, but I could tell it was given with some volume. It was the call of a big bird. Turkey? I wondered. That's it, the yelp of a turkey. Again! That's no turkey, I muttered. Really, it sounded like a giant nuthatch. I didn't let myself think what it might have been. I waited until insects and nightfall forced me back to the car. Later, in the hotel room, with the clarity that comes only with time, I admit to myself what I had heard. I would be out at first light, waiting, tomorrow.
If it went to roost here, giving a couple of calls just before going to sleep, it would be here at first light. Hurriedly, I pick my way back up the trail, a tiny flashlight beam bouncing along the ground. Moths spiral and hit the lens, to be replaced by mosquitoes as the light continues to grow. It's already oppressively hot and damp. Finally, I reach the spot where, last night, I'd impaled a tissue on a twig, and switch off the light. There's no way it has left its roost, if roost it is, yet. I wait, and the sky brightens to gray, then to rose, then yellow-white. The sun's up! Should I stay another hour? Two? And then, a sound to stop my heart. HENK! And again. And the calls are punctuated with the lusty whack of a strong bill hitting wood. Ba-bam! An ivory-colored bill.
A silent scream rises in my throat, and I quell it with difficulty. I will the bird to stay near its roost hole. The irregular whacking and chipping continue. I can't believe my luck. I've tracked pileated woodpeckers countless times, following the sound of their working. It's far easier to zero in on than a call.
Warily, I slip into the underbrush, spider webs draping across my face. It's farther away than I thought, but I should be seeing some motion soon. It's not very high off the ground, by the sound of it. There's a huge hackberry ahead, missing tea-tray sized pieces of its bark, and riddled with round holes. It's a mess. I zero in on it. I'm too close, and the chipping stops suddenly. Claws scritch on bark as the bird heaves itself up for a look at me. Its head pops around the warty grey trunk of the hackberry. Oh, I am too close, but I say a prayer that it will stay, if only for a moment. I've had my binoculars at chin level as I crept forward, and they're foggy from my breath as I ease them to my eyes. His eye meets mine, through the lenses. It is palest yellow, almost white, and it stands out in his velvety black face like a topaz. The pupil is tiny, a pinpoint. His crest is standing straight up, flared in surprise. It is backlit by the dawn, afire around the edge. His bill, horn-white and huge, juts from his head like the primitive chisel that it is. In my mind's eye, I have searched for him, seen him in dreams, but, even dreaming, I have never seen anything like this. The white line running from his eye, down his neck, is immaculate, shining. And, almost casually, he hitches around the trunk and begins a long spiral up the tree, giving me a look at the lavish white rectangle of his folded wings over his back.
The motion of his legs and body is so fluid I can't tell how it is he's hitching upward; it just seems to happen. He thrusts back with his legs, and his body's effortlessly propelled up, his long crest flopping with the motion. His claws are like grappling hooks, slaty semicircles that seem just to prick the bark. I can see daylight under the soles of his feet as he spirals around the side of the tree. A couple of calls, brassy and explosive at this close range, a nervous toss of his head, and he launches himself, wings closed, off the trunk toward the rising sun. I gasp as they open, catching his fall – a fanfare of white, so brilliant and unexpected in the gloomy understory. He lines out just below the canopy, weaving through the great trunks of the bottomland giants, and is gone. I roll backward from the aching crouch I'd held the whole time, and start to laugh as an ant picks its way through the tears streaming down into my ears. I had never given up hope that they were still here, still anywhere, not lost forever, but forever found.
Who to tell? Who, perhaps more importantly, not to tell? How to tell it? I don't have a photograph; I don't have a recording. I am, I realize, and not for the first time, an idiot.Why couldn't I have packed my handheld video camcorder, that lies safe in its foam-padded case, in Ohio? Why didn't I bring even a disposable camera? I could have bought one at any filling station on the way here. Well, I think, who expects to stumble on an extinct bird? I decide to stop flogging myself, and get busy. I can draw, and I reach around for the sketchbook and pencils I keep in my backpack. Oh, to have him back, even for a second. I do my best, calling back the exquisite angles of his head and bill, the long, spiky taper of his central tail feathers, even the color of his toes, and the bristly white feathers covering his nostrils. These will have to do. Lord knows, these things aren't in any field guide I've ever seen!
When I start thinking about ivory-billed woodpeckers, I find it hard to stop. They hitch and flap and peck around in my head; they make me think about large issues, like extinction, and small things, like the look in their eyes, the gloss of their feathers.
You will, I hope, forgive me my flight of fancy. I don't wish to be ornithology's Orson Welles. It's all fiction, up to this paragraph, made out of whole cloth, and a wild and deep longing to have been one of the chosen, to have seen this bird before it was gone.
With few exceptions, I write what I know about, what I have done or seen, and I draw that way, too, usually with the creature, the fruit, leaf, landscape right in front of me. That works best. I can draw, but I can't cartoon. Put me at a table with paper and pencil, but nothing to look at, and I'm almost helpless to produce a believable drawing. I can write, but I find fiction a terrible stretch. But the ivorybills won't let me alone. I think and stew and mutter about this article, how to write about something I only wish I had known. Finally, I decide to look outward for help, to talk to those few who made the effort to know the great woodpecker.
Any study of the ivory-billed woodpecker has to start with James Tanner's elegant treatise, written as his PhD thesis at Cornell, and published by the National Audubon Society in 1942, while a few birds still hung on in the cypress and bottomland forest of Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina. As a college student, I painstakingly photocopied each page of this book, and bound it and every article I could uncover in an old leather binder. Not long out of college, I was invited one summer afternoon to meet Dr. Tanner and his wife, Nancy, at the home of a friend in Lyme, Connecticut. He was an affable, quiet man, who willingly signed my makeshift copy of his book. I felt completely helpless to tell him how much his work meant to me, and I fretted as the conversation in our afternoon tea party turned away from ivorybills and on to topics of greater interest to the group. What I wanted to do was touch him, this man who knew the ivorybill better than anyone who had ever lived, to soak up some of that magic. But you don't go touching people you've never even met, nor do you drag them off to ask questions about their PhD thesis, 40 years in the past, when they're having a nice get-together with friends. A year and a half later, James Tanner died. Nancy Tanner's warm voice on the telephone was a balm to my regret. Between natural history travel and lectures to universities and ornithological societies, she shared her reminiscences of ivorybills:
"Jim had written his book based on his studies of the Singer Tract [Louisiana] population in the late 30s. We went back down at Christmas time of 1941 because he wanted to see what was happening there. There were still five ivorybills, and we spent two weeks down there. The bark [from their workings] peels off and falls on the ground, and that's how you find where they are. You could hear them [calling] a mile away, it seemed. They were extremely loud. Very loud. The pounding was pretty darn loud, too. They are a very, very conspicuous bird. They impressed me as being extremely large and gorgeous – so much white is showing. We had located one roost hole, so we were relatively close, sitting quietly on a log in the dark, soaking wet in the swamp. The bird is the last of the woodpeckers to come out [in the morning]. He climbed to the top, pounded, and then called; pounded and then called, and the female flew over next to him, and with a great racket they flew off. Jim went cantering after them, leaping over logs, slashing through briar. They fly extremely fast, and when they fly high, they're going to be gone for a while.
"The Singer Tract was being cut quite heavily when we went down. After Jim wrote his report, he and [The Audubon Society] both went to Congress and tried to get it preserved. But the war was coming on; Pearl Harbor had just come along, and Jim went off in the service in a few months. To lose such great beauty ... there was something about that bird that's attracted everybody."
About a week after our conversation, a package arrived in the mail from Mrs. Tanner. With shaking hands, I removed a neat stack of photographs and two typewritten stories. They were unpublished reminiscences by James Tanner, which weave a haunting spell of the primeval forest and the flashy, regal woodpeckers that once dwelt there:
"We, the woodpeckers, Kuhn [his assistant], and I, lived in the forest, and I came to know it well. It was a bottomland forest of oaks, sweet gum, wild pecan, hackberry, and several other kinds of trees covering over a hundred square miles ... All the animals that had ever lived there in the memory of man, excepting the [Carolina] paroquet and passenger pigeon, still lived there ... .
"Finding and following the ivorybills was a fascinating game, and when the chase was successful it had a fitting reward, for ivory-billed woodpeckers were not only very rare birds – they looked like rare birds. Their plumage, in bold pattern, glistened, their big bills shone white, and their piercing yellow eyes held the look of a king. I never tired of watching them."
In these words, James Tanner's awe and respect for ivorybills comes through, loud as a double-rap. His writing is too good simply to excerpt; it deserves a forum of its own.
I want, badly, to talk to more people who've seen an ivorybill. My next call is to Thomas R. Murray of Owen Sound, Ontario. An avid birder since the age of 12, Mr. Murray was 19 years old when he accompanied three friends on a birding expedition to South Carolina in 1936. Mr. Murray's good friend, Richard M. Saunders, wrote of their trip in his book, Carolina Quest (1951, Univ. of S. C. Press and Univ. of Toronto Press).They'd traveled by rail from Toronto to New York, and by ship to Charleston, South Carolina. Seeing the ivorybill was not, initially, a goal of this group. While staying at McClellanville, South Carolina, they heard a rumor that a group of bird watchers had seen ivorybills less than a month earlier, along a branch of the Santee River:
"We didn't know the ivorybill had been seen there at all, until we got there. There were rumors around that they had been seen. We didn't believe it, hardly, you know, but we found the guide who had taken the people in. We weren't there too long looking for them, actually, because the guide was able to take us to the immediate area where they had been seen. It was a long trip up the river, in a dugout canoe with an outboard motor. We split the guide's pay four ways.
"There were two of them, a pair. We had a good look at them. There was absolutely no question; we were familiar with pileated woodpeckers. I don't recall how close we were, but it was fairly close to them. Flaming red crest, and all that white on them. But it was for less than a minute, I would say. They both flew off, of course, as soon as they realized we were there. There was a tremendous amount of white in the wing. Once they started flying they disappeared almost immediately; it was in heavy bush. I've done a lot of birding: Argentina, Kenya, Costa Rica, Australia and New Zealand twice, New Guinea, Java ... . My world list is around 2,800. But that's most certainly the crown jewel."
I try to imagine stumbling on a rumor of ivorybills, and being lucky enough to follow it up, and see them on the first try. That was a neat trick, even in 1936, but I can't quite imagine it happening today. I want to hear from someone who went after the ivorybill, on a quest to see the bird, so I call Don Eckelberry, ornithologist and peerless painter of birds, at his home on Long Island:
"I may be the last ornithologist to have seen them in the States. As far as I know, it is the last absolutely authenticated sighting. It was in April, 1944. This is northeast Louisiana, the Tensas River bottom. Dick Pough had gone down there and he'd seen it. He was the ornithologist for [the National] Audubon [Society], and I was in New York, working for the magazine. When he came back and said he'd seen it, I was in a lather to go see it, and I convinced John Baker, the president, to let me go down and see it.
"I never saw a male; this was a female. I went back and would follow her though the woods when I'd hear the double rap. And I saw it several times after that. We knew then it was on its way out. There were several in that area, and that was the last one seen. Pough had been down there for quite a while searching all over, and that's all he came up with, this one female.
"It isn't really a woodpecker; it's a bark peeler. When she was peeling bark, her head was turned back to the side and went under the bark. Down at the base of the tree you'd find big strips of bark, not little chips. She'd start and hitch down and keep peeling it down and eating the grubs in the cambium layer, between the bark and the wood.
"The voice is like a loud HENK, like a red-breasted nuthatch, only louder. But it was not nearly as loud as the double rap. It had a double rap like ba-BOOM ba-BOOM, and that was very loud and would carry a long way. And once you'd heard that double rap, you could locate the bird. When it flew, it flew like a pintail duck, not like a woodpecker that goes down and up, down and up – it went straight. And it wasn't easy to locate; it went straight away.
"The German prisoners of war [WW II] were helping lumber the Singer Tract. Not too far away you could hear the little donkey engine, and the cutting. I don't know how much is left today. I never went back. I went in on the train, the donkey engine, and there were all these German prisoners who would rather be out in the fresh air than sitting in a camp. It was an interesting experience."
Don Eckelberry has brought the meaning of extinction home to me as no one else could. Extinction, to me, is powerlessness, inexorability, rage, and despair. Extinction is the buzzing saw that drowns out even the double rap of a powerful woodpecker. Suddenly, I have to get some air, and I turn out the lights, put on my boots and coat, and walk deep into our woods. On this late January afternoon, the sky is oyster gray, and not a breath of air stirs the bare branches. I climb partway up a steep hill, and sit to catch my breath and retie my shoes. I lean back on my arms and listen. A brown creeper calls, three, four times, then falls silent. Overhead, a jet roars and thunders, but soon it fades from hearing. A shot sounds from the east, a chain saw from the north. Over it all, I can hear traffic on the interstate highway, eight miles to the west.
There are pileated woodpeckers in our woods; I've found four nests over the years. The woods are being cut on three sides of our 80-acre property, and the two pairs we have been watching since 1992 are seen ever more frequently on our land. I can't take a walk without hearing their high, wild yelps, or seeing the sweep of pied wings. I think about a world without pileated woodpeckers, as James Tanner and Don Eckelberry, I'm sure, thought about a world without ivorybills. I listen again. Not a note from any bird. But I, too, can hear the saws.
In the mail, a week later, a package arrived from Don Eckelberry, the same day I received Nancy Tanner's. I hope none of my neighbors sees me and wonders why I am suddenly down on my knees by the mailbox. He's made a tracing paper overlay on one of my color studies of an ivorybill, moving its leg to a more believable position. Thank you, Don. He's included a reproduction of his painting of a pair of ivorybills, muscular, bold, impeccably constructed, as are all his birds. My eyes bug out as a little sheaf of original field notes and sketches from his 1944 expedition falls out. The life sketches he'd described to me as "nothing, really," leap off the page; living, preening, flying ivorybills. There's an essay, too, that had appeared in John Terres' Discovery: Great Moments in the Lives of Outstanding Naturalists. In it, the artist paints his encounter with what was perhaps the Singer Tract's last ivorybill, but this time with words:
"She came trumpeting in to the roost, her big wings cleaving the air in strong, direct flight, and she alighted with one magnificent upward swoop. Looking about wildly with her hysterical pale eyes, tossing her head from side to side, her black crest erect to the point of leaning forward, she hitched up the tree at a gallop, trumpeting all the way. Near the top she became suddenly quiet and began preening herself. With a few disordered feathers properly and vigorously rearranged, she gave her distinctive double rap, the second blow following so closely on the first that it was almost like an echo – an astonishingly loud, hollow, drumlike Bam-am! Then she hitched down the tree and sidled around to the roost hole, looked in, looked around, hitched down beneath the entrance, double-rapped, and went in.
"At 7:20, after I had finished all my notes and we were about to leave, she popped out and raced up the trunk to its broken top where, bathed in rich orange light of the setting sun, she alternately preened and jerked her head about in a peculiar, angular way, quite unlike the motions of any other woodpecker I knew. I was tremendously impressed by the majestic and wild personality of this bird, its vigor, its almost frantic aliveness.
"... One day on my way in I investigated some desultory hammering expecting to find a pileated woodpecker, but it was the ivorybill working on a broken stub not 15 feet above the ground. I watched her for a good ten minutes. I hope I am not dispelling belief in what I have said about the regal qualities of the bird to add that there was something comical about it too. That big pale bill sometimes looked almost like an ice-cream cone jammed into her black mouth, and then the expression of her eyes seemed the natural one at such an occurrence. Call that anthropomorphism if you like, but it is just such impressions which give the bird painter the key to that 'rightness' of expression, for which he is always striving."
The ivorybill, in life, so vividly described by Tanner and Eckelberry: how can it be gone from the earth? Could the birds somehow still survive in the southern United States? Could enough bottomland forest have been left for a small breeding population to hang on? Pileated woodpeckers have undergone a resurgence, as once-cleared land has been allowed to grow over to forest. Why couldn't the ivorybill, too?
Extinction is, as a rule, unkind to specialists, creatures that make their living in unique and rather narrow niches. Think of the snail kite, which depends almost entirely on apple snails for food. Drain the apple snail's marsh, lose the kite. While the ivorybill was more flexible, taking a variety of wild fruits and poison ivy berries, for example, it relied most heavily on the great, thumb-sized larvae of cerambycid (longhorn) beetles, which tunnel just beneath the bark of dead trees. These larvae inhabit not just any dead trees, but very large dead trees that have been dead only two years. A stand of mature trees killed by fire, wind damage, or flooding was a bonanza to the birds, which were, by some accounts, seminomadic, traveling widely to exploit such stands. Tanner referred to them as "deadenings," and he watched ivorybills peel loosened bark from the trees to reach the grubs. Enter modern forestry practices. Clifford Shackleford, a biologist with Texas Partners in Flight/Texas Parks and Wildlife, explained:
"[Mankind] removed fire and flooding by creating dikes and channels. Those kinds of things have shut down the disturbance [that the ivorybill depended on]. You can see how quick we are to respond to beetle outbreaks and fire – we go in and fell the trees so it doesn't spread. Pine plantations and the lack of flooding in the bottomlands: I don't know which is worse. Loblolly is the pine of the bottoms in the coastal plain. They were always sparse, but now we've mass-produced them in rows. The management of trees is to make sure they are harvested before they die of natural causes. To somebody who's looking at a tree as a dollar, a snag is a sign of mismanagement! You didn't make your dollar off that tree. And you can't blame them when there's a tremendous demand for paper products. That's why all this is going on. If an ivorybill were worth $100 a sighting, we'd have a lot more ivorybills."
It's clearer to me now that the chances of these big-tree peelers hanging on in the face of full-scale forest exploitation are slim. While ivorybills could use their great chisels to advantage in digging nest cavities, they were not, by nature, true excavators, as are pileated woodpeckers. The smaller birds do peel bark, but they also dig deeply into wood, from living to decades-dead, finding a great variety of insect food along the way. Pileated woodpeckers inhabit a wider niche; they're closer to being generalists in their food requirements and foraging strategies. Even in the Singer Tract, Tanner estimated a density of 36 pileateds inhabiting the foraging territory of a single ivorybill!
What of the "unsubstantiated" records since Eckelberry's sighting in 1944? I wanted to hear from someone who'd seen an ivorybill more recently. Ornithologist John V. Dennis of Princess Anne, Maryland, has had three more recent encounters with this will-o'-the-wisp. In April, 1948, he and Davis Crompton found an active nest site, three adult birds, and a skull in Oriente, the easternmost province of Cuba. On April 5, 1951, he heard an ivorybill call five times in the Chipola River swamp of northwestern Florida. Not until December 3, 1966, did Dennis hear the call again – but this time, he was following up, by request of the World Wildlife Fund, on an excellent description of a female ivorybill given by Mrs. Olga Hooks Lloyd, in the Neches River Valley of east Texas. On December 10, he finally saw the bird:
"It flew up from the ground and lit in a big cypress tree. It had a large amount of white on the rear of the wing. It flew off in a straight line. I'd read in Tanner that once the bird flies it goes in the same direction for quite a while. I was so excited. It was a pretty cold day in December, but I took my clothes off and waded into this bayou. The water came up almost to my chin. I was holding my clothes over my head. I climbed out on the other side and I didn't have an opportunity to dry myself, and I was pretty cold. I got my clothes back on as best I could, and headed in the same direction. The woods opened up a little bit. In front of me was a stump, and the ivorybill was on the stump, wings outspread. A pileated woodpecker pair was in the neighborhood. I got the impression that the ivorybill was directing a threat display at the pileateds. The ivorybill flew off again. It disappeared over the Neches River.
"I spent a lot of time in the Big Thicket. Across the river there was a big area owned by the Army Corps of Engineers that hadn't been lumbered for a long time. It was pretty good habitat, so I spent a lot of time searching over there as well as on the same side where I saw the bird. I found places where the bark of trees had been knocked off and scaled. I couldn't always be sure whether it was ivorybill or pileated work. My wife and I later practically moved to the Big Thicket. There were some generous people who loaned us their cabin, and a couple of people joined us and we made that our headquarters. We got quite a bit of publicity, and people would call in, but 90 percent of the time they hadn't really seen the bird. We went out every day looking and listening. We got the Cornell recording and played it out in the woods, and hoped that it would attract the live ivorybill. We never heard any response. When I went searching for it in South Carolina's Congaree Swamp, we never got any response, either.
"My feeling is that the ivorybill is extinct. There just haven't been any reports coming in. I don't want to be the last one to see it. I'm hoping and have been hoping all along that the birds are still around."
Given the aura of secrecy that surrounds later ivorybill sightings, I wondered if the lack of reports might be due to an unwillingness on the part of observers to reveal the birds' exact location. After all, if ever there were a Holy Grail of North American birdwatching, the ivorybill is it. I tried to imagine the stampede that would ensue if an authenticated sighting were to hit a rare bird alert hotline. I pictured helicopters and satellite television trucks as the media and throngs of camera-toting birders swarmed whatever quiet backwater might still shelter the reclusive log-gods. I wondered what I would do if the stars aligned and an ivorybill appeared before me. What was the most recent sighting out there? An Internet contact led me to Dr. Dennis G. Garratt, a Canadian chemist who's made an amateur study of ornithology for many years. In 1985, he made a month-long trip to study birds in Florida. His story:
"I wasn't looking for them at the time. It [the bird] was on a dead palm tree, and it was pecking away. The hammering sounded like an ordinary pileated. It was a large woodpecker, with a great deal of white on its back. I did get good views of its back and underwings. The pattern is very different from a pileated's. The pileated will tuck its wings and look like a torpedo, and I don't recall [this bird] doing that.
"It certainly did not care to be watched. I froze, and it froze. It was tapping when I first saw it. It gave a call totally unlike a pileated, a single note. It was considerably larger than the Florida subspecies of the pileated. It had a red crest, which would make it a male. I had a camera, and I didn't think to pick it up and aim at it – I was so stunned, I just stood there looking at it. It took off through the swamp, and I took off through the swamp. It was perhaps 15 minutes from my first sighting to the last; I saw it one more time after the initial sighting. I lost it in some mangroves and then it flew across a river – I didn't cross the river myself because there were a number of alligators in it.
"When I came out of the swampy area I had been in, I tried finding some forestry workers, but they had all closed up shop for the day. I sat in my car trying to cool off for a while – it had been a very warm day. When I got back I typed all of this up. I sent the report directly to a person with the American Ornithologists' Union. I sent notes out to all the state authorities. I wrote to American Birds, and that's when we got into the question of should we publish it at all, and we decided no.
"I did a lot of research back in the libraries, and the first chance I had to get to a museum where they might have a specimen, I went to look at it. That just reinforced my feeling that I had indeed seen it, and not some aberrant pileated with partial albinism.
"I did look for a number of years thereafter in the same spot without any success. The last time I looked was in 1991. The area was protected, but there hadn't been any reports in many decades. As far as I know, that area is still protected, but I don't know if any of the surrounding area has been gobbled up since I was last there. It was a cypress swamp with a lot of mangroves along the river.
"I was awestruck at the time, and I still feel that way today. I could still find the tree it was on, if it hasn't fallen down."
The year 1985 has an immediacy that stops me cold. Although no one knows what the life expectancy of the ivorybill might be, Ken Parkes, curator emeritus of ornithology at the Carnegie Museum, estimates that it might be around 20 years. And yet, parrots of similar body size have made it into their 70s. How sad, to think of a handful of survivors somehow hanging on, with no others to answer their high, strange calls. Better, I suppose, than to think of the earth without ivorybills at all.
It has been an absorbing and strangely sad exercise, this phoning and interviewing the last people to see ivory-billed woodpeckers. I want someone to assure me that the great birds are still out there, but no one does. Some dismiss the idea outright, almost as if wanting to be the last to have seen it. Others seem wistful, yet dubious that new sightings are yet to be made. Clifford Shackleford has compiled recent, published sightings of the species in Texas. To this day, hundreds of purported ivorybill sightings come in to his office each year:
"There are a lot of people who claim to see it. I think people are just getting out more, and probably none of them who call in are competent bird watchers. The majority of the people are interested, but really don't realize there are two "by-gods" [colloquial name for pileated woodpeckers]. Everybody wants to see a ghost. I throw it in there with UFOs, and Sasquatch, and the Loch Ness Monster. I think people can convince themselves that they see it. I wish I could convince myself."
I think about how modern endangered species management practices might handle the discovery of a relict population. The birds captured, one by one, with giant mist nets strung near their roost holes. Taken into huge enclosures. Artificially inseminated. Their eggs placed in incubators in some humming laboratory; their chicks fed by lifelike puppets until they were ready to join their parents in the enclosures. Would the populations be built up until a precious few were deemed ready for release? Would there be any place to release them? Given a choice between such intervention and certain extinction, and the intellect to consider it, what would an ivorybill choose? I imagine it flying away, in a long, straight line, wing beats steady, putting miles of swamp between it and the further workings of humanity.
Almost as elusive as the bird itself is Jerome Jackson, a Mississippi State University biology professor widely considered the foremost living authority on the ivory-billed woodpecker. He keeps a punishing schedule that includes teaching, finishing up a massive book on the species for Smithsonian Press, and searching for ivorybills both in Cuba and in the last tracts of bottomland forest in the southern United States. We communicate via computer for a long time before I actually pin him down by telephone. Jackson was appointed in 1986 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to an ivory-billed woodpecker advisory committee that consisted of fellow woodpecker experts Lester Short and James Tanner.
"We had a meeting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the purpose of the meeting, we found out after we got there, was to put the stamp of approval on declaring the species extinct. I said I wasn't willing to go along with it. I said, 'How can you declare a species extinct when you haven't even looked for it?' The habitat has improved dramatically since [the 1940s], because there were still 50,000 acres of the Singer Tract that were still relatively virgin forest. As a result of my complaints and refusal to go along, they decided to give me a grant in 1987 for one year to look for it. I had to be on sabbatical to do it. There was no money for help, or a boat. I did spend that time searching the swamps of the southeast. I bought a boat and canoes on my own money, and canoes, and I took student volunteers. When you're in the Atchafalaya Basin, and it's over 100 square miles, it's like looking for a needle in the haystack.
"In 87, Malcolm Hodges, a student of mine, and I were in an area north of Vicksburg, Mississippi. We'd play a 45-minute segment of tape, walk for 15 minutes, and take transects. We got to a point where I said, 'Malcolm, this is the best habitat I've seen anywhere!' He said, 'There it is, there it is! Listen!' I couldn't hear anything. 'It's coming, it's coming, it's coming!' he said. It was repeating exactly the call on the tape. It got to within a hundred yards of us and then stopped, wouldn't come any closer, and it called for 18 minutes. Finally I said, 'Malcolm, we've got to see it; we've got to get a picture or at least a sight record.' On the count of three, we rushed toward it. Nothing, no more sound, no more bird. We never saw it. This is within 40 miles of the Singer Tract. If they left the Singer Tract, they could have easily ended up there. We went back in and the next day we met a forester in the area, cruising timber, and he informed us that they were going to take a million dollars worth of timber out of there. And the next year they did.
"They had to have old-growth forest with lots of dead and dying trees, no question. They were feeding on large cerambycid beetles. You had to have big trees for big insects, and big roost cavities. The humidity of the forest was important because it provided the fungi that would rot the wood that would allow the beetles to exist. It had to be humid, as in the tropics. They wouldn't have occurred farther north, except right along river bottoms. The beetles are still out there, but some of them are quite rare. The ivorybill is the tip of the iceberg. What else have we lost along with it that wasn't so glamorous?
"I saw an ivorybill, and we heard them on eight different days, in Cuba in March of 1988. No one was able to find them after that. I continue to follow up on leads, and the F&WS continues to send me leads. I followed up on a lead in Florida, where a woman had one in her backyard. She described it perfectly; she described the call perfectly. But everyone reads the books. The habitat around her house was not at all appropriate, but there was appropriate habitat within five miles."
If all the stars aligned, and a population of ivorybills were ever discovered, what would be the best course of action? I put the question to Jackson. "The best thing that would happen would be to secure the property, not 1,000 acres, but 30,000 acres, and keep it from the public. The fortunate thing for the ivorybill is that any population that could be found would be in the most inaccessible of places."
Jerry Jackson, by virtue of his unique combination of ornithological expertise, woodsman's smarts, and unalloyed faith, refuses to close the book on the ivory-billed woodpecker. Alone among all those I've spoken with, he continues to search. He truly believes that, somewhere on the planet, ivorybills still hitch and rap and toss their fluffy topknots, pound their great shining bills into bark, fly in long straight lines over a sea of treetops. As much as I would like to see an ivory-billed woodpecker, I wish more that Jerry would see one.
As I read over my writing, I can't decide whether to use past or present tense when referring to ivorybills. I go back and forth between the two, tense in either camp. Ambivalence permeates my every thought about the great woodpeckers. I can't look at the old photographs of ivorybills and believe they're gone; it's like holding a still-warm bird in the hand, one that's just struck a window. Its eyes are wide, its feet soft and pliable, its wings snap back when they're extended. Surely it will regain its senses and spring into the air. It's too beautiful to be dead.
The ivorybill was an extravagant creature, by all accounts, a vision in ebony and white. It had a big bill, and just as big an appetite for oversized beetle larvae. It needed a lot of timber, with many old, dying trees, and it was willing to travel to make its specialized living. We cut its habitat right out from under it, and we continue to cut it. We've sent it countless messages with our saws and our columns of smoke. Leave or die out. Find somewhere else to live. This land is our land, now. And it just doesn't listen to us; it goes on, somewhere, I have to believe it; not dead, but missing in action; alive, defiantly, desperately, joyously, alive. No one can tell me I'm wrong, and, it seems, no one can tell me I'm right. There are those of us who cannot let it go.