Rare Bird Notes. . .

by Natasha Schischakin


Posted June 1, 2005

A Memorable Day for an Ivorybillphile

A morning like no other... the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed woodpecker is announced, and for a moment, the world notices...

Natasha Schischakin

Today is April 28, 2005. This morning started out like all other mornings, but t was not. When I got up, I did not think that anything was different, but it was. As I started my coffee, turned on the radio to the NPR (National Public Radio) morning show, checked my birds, gave them their morning snack, fed the cat, poured my coffee, and ambled towards my computer to check the e-mail, I had no idea of the news that awaited me. Although this seemed like every other morning, it was not… 

I was not paying much attention as I casually scrolled down the list... then a subject line caught my eye...it was from an ornithological list and simply stated "Ivory-billed Woodpeckers refound (in US)" -- IVORY-BILLED? THE EXTINCT IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER? Campephilus principalis? That certainly jolted me into consciousness. The e-mail, stated that "Conclusive evidence has now been gathered that a population of Ivory-bills persists in Arkansas." My heart skipped a beat. 

WOW! The source was a BirdLife International representative so it was not likely to be a hoax. But where, when, how? Then, as if on cue, NPR suddenly announced the news that the Ivory-billed woodpecker had indeed been found!!! The area was near the White River and in the Cache Rive National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas.  I was familiar with this area as I had fly-fished the White River many times. However, I would have never expected that it would be the place where the Ivory-billed woodpecker would be found. This was all just too absolutely incredible and wonderful.

Like many birdwatchers in the US, I had become an ivorybillphile. That was how I described myself to a friend later that night when trying to explain my feelings about this rediscovery. I am sure that is a description that others who fall into this category would readily understand. What are some of the distinguishable characteristics of an ivorybillphile? The first identifying trait has to be a fanatical interest in anything relating to the Ivory-billed woodpecker. In extreme cases, such as mine, a symptom is the collection of all publications and general memorabilia related to this species. 

An ivorybillphile also holds out hope and believes that the Ivory-billed woodpecker will once again be found and follows potential sightings of Ivory-billed woodpeckers with great interest – hoping that this will be the one. Since most serious ivorybillphiles are also birders, they hold a secret fantasy that one day, while out in the field, they will have the opportunity to see and confirm a real Ivory-billed woodpecker! The Ivory-billed woodpecker was the Golden Grail of American birders.  The Walter Mitty fantasy each one of us secretly harbored.  

There was great hope when a college student hunting in the Pearl River Management area in Louisiana believed that he had seen two birds. His description was so credible that it convinced ornithologists to mount a search expedition and Zeiss Optics to fund the project in 2002. But again, despite great hope, the searchers came up empty – to the great disappointment of ivorybillphiles the world over.

I remember driving past the Pearl River area in Louisiana on my way back to Texas thinking that there just “had” to be some birds that managed to survive in the inaccessible swamps. I had been to the Bellingrath Gardens near Mobile, Alabama and found it both tragic and fitting that the incredible almost three-foot tall Boehm porcelain of three Ivory-billed woodpeckers on a tree stump was the prized centerpiece of their magnificent Boehm porcelain collection. After all, the area was part of the Ivory-billed woodpeckers historic range, and who knows maybe they once had been on the property? (As an aside, Edward Marshal Boehm, besides being a brilliant wildlife artist and sculptor, was also an accomplished aviculturist.)

But today was different! Finally, after so many years and to the joy of every ivorybillphile, there was confirmation that the Ivory-billed still lived! The Ivory-billed woodpecker had in fact survived. I could barely contain my joy!

But, as the day wore on and as I avidly collected scraps of information and news on this absolutely monumental day, sending them on to a number of avicultural lists. But the more I learned, the more that my initial feeling of elation began to give way to a feeling of deja vu.  I had been here before…The reports confirmed that so far, the researchers had discovered only a single bird, a male. I began to get a slight tinge of concern as the story seemed to parallel my previous experiences with the rediscovery of another species thought extinct in the wild and then found… the Spix’s macaw.

I surfed the news channels trying to catch a glimpse of the press conference in Washington, DC. Finally, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton herself made the official announcement and introduced the program and the participants in this historic event. She congratulated the team that had confirmed the discovery and made a pledge of collaboration and funding for the conservation effort -- an astounding $10 million dollars!  Amazing! This was unexpected support for one confirmed bird. This was a true example of the power of a charismatic flagship species at work.

As expected, this was a well choreographed event. But I was caught off guard by how much had already been accomplished. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Press release outlined a rather comprehensive program. This was a surprise. I expected it to be a general announcement of the discovery, but obviously much planning and strategic thinking had been completed before the press event. 

It was difficult to understand how this discovery had been kept under wraps for a year, particularly if the federal government, national organizations and local groups had all been privy to this information. The fact that such a momentous discovery had not “leaked” before the announcement was in itself remarkable.  

My previous experiences in endangered species conservation made me expect exactly the opposite. Instead of such a display of collaboration and planning, I was expecting conservation groups and the government to be falling over each over trying to be the “first” to break the news – and to take credit.

As the day progressed, statements from other organizations began to appear in the media and on the internet. A few expressed congratulations to the organizations involved for pulling off such an amazing feat, while others obviously tried to ride the publicity wave. BirdLife International sent out a joint press release with its US partner, the National Audubon Society, congratulating the effort but failing to mention the major players by name – the Nature Conservancy and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

Then, on another e-mail list, I was directed to a great blog called “Living the Scientific Life” documenting the trials and tribulations of a new researcher in the academic community. She had posted a number of e-mails from individuals who were the primary members of the investigation and search team … and the “real” story finally began to take shape…  I enjoyed the posts thoroughly as they only confirmed what I had been reading between the lines in the events of the day.

It seems that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy had set up an incredible operation that included over 50 search team members and the involvement of many locals. It must have been a logistical nightmare, but considering that it was conducted with an understanding that the work would not be made public until everything was ready, is astonishing. It was obviously a well thought out and multi-faceted conservation strategy. 

While the search team Cornell Lab of ornithology focused on the birds, the Nature Conservancy worked on acquiring land and habitat.  They managed to keep this operation under wraps, until the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington was notified a week before the announcement. The original plan was to have the announcement made in mid May, but the event had to be moved up – drum roll please – because someone from the Service in Washington had leaked the news to other groups who apparently were ready to go public with the news!  I knew it!

The events of the day brought back vivid memories of my own experiences almost 15 years before when the rediscovery the Spix’s macaw (another species thought to be extinct in the wild) was announced to the world. It was August 1990 and the International Council for Bird Preservation - ICBP (now known as BirdLife International), convened a press conference in Rio de Janeiro to announce that they had “discovered” a single Spix’s macaw in the wild.

However, this “discovery” and announcement came as a huge shock to many of us that had been working with the Brazilian wildlife authorities to craft together a recovery plan for the species by setting up a captive-breeding program for the estimated 12 birds left in captivity. Our shock was not at the news of the last wild bird, as there had been rumors of its existence, but at the fact that this was made public before there was time to establish a plan to protect the last wild bird.  The wildlife authorities found out just as everyone else in Brazil – from news reports. The premature release of the information was possibly the worst thing that anyone could have done for the safety and welfare of the individual bird, and not only that—the ICBP press conference included a map showing roads and marking the location of the discovery!

I was a witness to the fallout of their actions as I arrived in Brasilia just as the news broke and was with the wildlife officials as they scrambled to get guards to this remote region in an almost futile attempt to try to provide security for this extremely valuable bird.  Instead of working with the Brazilians to try to first secure the location, ICBP chose to go with the international attention and publicity that such an announcement would attract. At least in the case of the Ivory-billed woodpecker, there had been enough groundwork completed before going public with the news. 

As I read the paper on the Science  website "Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America" my heart sank. Certain parts of the abstract caught my eye: " ... confirm the existence of at least one male". "Extensive efforts to locate birds away from the primary site remain unsuccessful, but potential habitat for a thinly distributed source population is vast..." So many of the statements and assumptions were similar to those made in the case of the Spix's macaw. I was hoping that history was not repeating itself. 

Had someone told me in 1990 that that was the last known Spix's macaw left in the wild in the world, I am not sure I would have believed it. At that time  there was great hope that they still existed somewhere in the dry desert caatinga habitat of Brazil. Now, after years of intensive searches and false leads, we know that is was most likely the last wild Spix’s macaw. But at least in the case of the Spix's macaw, there is a captive population that grew from an initial base of 11 birds to over 60, and once it reaches a sustainable size to be harvested, there is always the potential of a reintroduction program.  (If the habitat can be restored and secured.) 

But, in the case of the Ivory-billed woodpecker, there is no captive population from which to draw on for future reintroductions. The only hope is that there are in fact other birds and that there is a viable breeding population hidden somewhere in the wilderness Arkansas. Of course, a single pair of remnant birds does not ensure a population, so even if a female is found, the species is not secure. The extinction vortex is relentless... 

If, by some incredible twist of fate, this is the last wild Ivory-billed woodpecker, the hope that its discovery triggered would make its actual extinction even more tragic.But I decided not to dwell on my fears, at least not today! This has been such a tremendous day that needs to be celebrated. 

The fact that two major national organizations, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy worked with the local communities to put together such a large project while keeping it a secret is simply astounding. 

The fact that the US Fish and Wildlife Service is providing the funds will help preserve vital habitat and support the work of conservation groups is a good sign (as long as they don't interfere with the success.) 

The fact that at least one Ivory-billed woodpecker has survived into the new millennium is miraculous. 

Today is a day to celebrate the resilience of life and to hope for success. Good luck and best wishes to the Ivorybill Team! 

Ivorybillphiles everywhere will watch, support and as always, hope...



National Public Radio (NPR) Story April 28, 2005 (includes audio): "Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Rediscovered in Arkansas"

Science Publication (PDF file) "Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America"

The official site of the actual "Big Woods" Partnership.

BirdLife International Press Release: "Ivory-billed Woodpecker Found in Arkansas"

National Audubon Society Press Release: "Conservationists Worldwide Celebrate Rediscovery of Ivory-billed Woodpecker"

US Fish and Wildlife Service Web: Includes news release and additional information on the recovery effort, including funding.

"Living the Scientific Life" Blog. 

© Copyright 2005 Natasha Schischakin  All Rights Reserved


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