IF YOU WERE THE LAST BIRD OF YOUR SPECIES, looking for a comfortable place to evade extinction, the view flying over northern Monroe County, Arkansas, would probably not tempt you to touch down. You'd see abandoned trailer homes with saplings growing through their windows; asbestos-shingle shacks with discarded cars and appliances sinking into their lawns; rice fields sectioned into rectangular ponds like the plastic lagoons in a TV-dinner tray; and huge, insectile central-pivot irrigators patrolling oceans of soil where thousand-year-old cypress trees once stood.
The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
Yet Bayou de View—a spit of hardwood jungle here at the uppermost tip of Arkansas's 550,000-acre Big Woods, smack-dab between Little Rock and Memphis—is where the world's rarest avis, the ivory-billed woodpecker, has reemerged more than half a century after ornithological authorities pronounced it dead. Seen from above, Bayou de View looks about as primeval as a planter of ficus trees at a shopping mall. Below the treetops, though, the terrain looks less like eastern Arkansas and more like rural Mordor. The water, which is the color of beef au jus, flows in labyrinthine meanders boiling with toothy gar and cottonmouths as stout as a man's wrist. The forest is an endless gray weft of cypress and tupelo trunks that reduces the vista to nil. In the warmer months, when the trees haven't yet molted, trying to spot an ivorybill back here is roughly as rewarding as tracking a dust mite through the world's largest shag carpet.
"Damn close to pointless," said Gene Sparling, gently adrift in a kayak south of Bayou de View late last May, when I first met him. It was the 50-year-old Sparling—an amused, stoic Arkansan with blunt, sun-cured features—who first sighted one of the supposedly long-gone ivorybills, a red-crested male with lustrous black wings trailing a signature fringe of white, while on a solo pleasure cruise through the Big Woods in February 2004. (The embattled beauty of the place, a well-known birding destination, regularly drew him from his home in Hot Springs.) By mid-March, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy, along with Sparling and other key players, had launched the top-secret Inventory Project. Sparling, a lifelong amateur naturalist who never attended college, was tapped to co-direct the subsequent quest for the bird, a 14-month, 100-person sub-rosa stakeout in the swamp.
"Here I am, a dumb, son-of-a-bitch hick from rural Arkansas, helping manage one of the most phenomenal conservation stories of the last 200 years, working with the most outstanding ornithologists on Planet Earth," said Sparling, whose name, with 16 others, appeared on the April 28, 2005, ivorybill announcement, which appeared on the journal Science's Web site prior to publication in the June 3 issue—a distinction most ornithologists would trade a finger for. "It's pretty cool."
Within four weeks of identifying the unextinct bird, Sparling had shuttered his stable, where he'd been running a horseback-riding business, and turned his attention to ivorybill stalking full-time. But the first long spate of concerted searching didn't exactly yield jaw-dropping results. Twenty-three thousand hours in the swamp turned up a mere six solid sightings, a few recordings of birdcalls and trees being bludgeoned, and a video: four blurry seconds of piebald wings flapping through the gloom, the hardest evidence going of the bird's revival. "Evidence means a photograph or, in this case, a crappy video with extensive analysis," says the video's author, David Luneau, a birder and technology professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. To certify that the footage shows an ivory-billed and not a pileated woodpecker, its closest look-alike, a battery of experts at Cornell subjected the footage to pixel-by-pixel scrutiny, concluding that, based on the bird's inordinate size and the broad trailing band of white on its wings—a pileated bears a lean white swoosh in the center of its otherwise black wings—Luneau's camera had indeed captured the genuine article.
Two dozen autonomous audio recorders, strapped to trees throughout the woods, logged a little over two years' worth of tape. Back at the Cornell Lab, in Ithaca, New York, a group of luckless people used pattern-recognition software to audition the recordings eight hours a day, ears pricked for the ivorybill's nasal, warbling tin-trumpet call ("kent, kent, kent") and the distinctive report of the bird tearing a tree trunk a new one. The mind-numbing work ultimately paid off, though. In July 2005, when a trio of rival scientists threatened to mount a challenge to the findings, the audio captures convinced the skeptics. Two months later, the Arkansas Audubon Society's Bird Records Committee amended the ivorybill's official status from "extirpated" to "present."
But two years after the rediscovery, the searching has yet to turn up signs of a breeding population or video evidence that doesn't require a team of Ph.D.'s to decipher. In the continuing quest to locate a remnant population of a bird that once flourished in the ancient forests that spanned the southern lowlands from North Carolina down to Florida and across to Texas, Ivorybill Search Team Two took to the Big Woods this winter. But it's an errand less reminiscent of the freewheeling adventures of John James Audubon than the nihilism of Samuel Beckett.
"Waiting for the Ivorybill," says Tim Gallagher, editor of Cornell's Living Bird magazine and author of 2005's woodpecker-quest narrative The Grail Bird. "It gets old pretty quick."
Despite the possibility of fame—at least among an unglamorous ghetto of bird enthusiasts—and the more slender chance of getting rich off your story, spotting an ivorybill has not always been something you would wish upon yourself. For decades, claiming to have seen one could get you lumped in with folks who swaddle their heads in tinfoil to ward off mind-control rays beamed from outer space. George Lowery, a professor of zoology at Louisiana State University, showed up at a 1971 ornithological conference with ivorybill snapshots supposedly taken in Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin. His colleagues dismissed them as photos of stuffed specimens nailed to trees. In 1999, David Kulivan, an LSU undergraduate, professed to have seen a pair of ivorybills near Louisiana's Pearl River on April Fools' Day, but later searches (one of which relied on an animal psychic) turned up nothing. Doubters assailed Kulivan's credibility, and, weary of the ordeal, he clammed up.
But when that very first bird banked in front of Gene Sparling's kayak on February 11, 2004, he knew exactly what he'd seen. "I was familiar with the legend of the ivorybill," says Sparling, who speaks with a richly seasoned raconteurial drawl. "As a young man, I fantasized at great length of traveling to the Big Thicket, in Texas, finding a lost colony of ivorybills, and photographing them." Even so, he says, his jubilation at seeing the bird was marbled with pure terror. A wayfaring, neo-beatnik entrepreneur whose ré;sumé; includes a failed Baja whale-watching concern and an abandoned shiitake mushroom operation, Sparling was wary of a public drubbing: "I thought, Oh, shit. Here I am, a guy with no education, no formal training, saying he'd seen an ivorybill. I expected everybody to say, 'Sparling, you idiot, you moron, you're delusional.' "
So Sparling didn't shout the news so much as mumble it, posting an obliquely phrased description of the sighting on the Arkansas Canoe Club's online message board. His report eventually came to the attention of two veteran ivorybill searchers: Bobby Harrison, a humanities professor at Alabama's Oakwood College, and Tim Gallagher, of Cornell. Working together, they'd spent the two previous years investigating ivorybill encounters throughout the Southeast. Two weeks after Sparling's run-
in with the woodpecker, they were in Arkansas, and Sparling guided them out into the swamp. On February 27, the second day of the trip, a large black-and-white bird with a vivid band of white on its wings sortied past their canoe.
"We both yelled, 'Ivorybill!' " says Gallagher. "Scared the hell out of the bird. We jumped out and sank to our knees in mud, scrambling over logs and branches, on the verge of cardiac arrest. Bobby, who's kind of a big redneck, just sat down and started sobbing." The bird's appearance was too brief for either man to get it on film. They spent another three days in the swamp before heading home empty-handed. "I was in shock," says Gallagher. "I went back to Ithaca looking like a ghost. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said I looked so bad, he thought I was going to tell him I had an incurable disease."
Though Gallagher and Harrison had urged Sparling to keep the sighting under wraps until they'd gotten hard proof, Sparling felt he had to alert the Nature Conservancy's Arkansas chapter, which had been working to preserve the Big Woods since the mid-eighties. "With the greatest respect to Cornell, I couldn't see leaving the discovery exclusively in the hands of people from New York—and not telling the key people in Arkansas who'd helped preserve the habitat where the bird was found," he says.
Soon the Cornell Lab and TNC scrambled their combined forces. In short order, they raised $1 million to help fund the search and took out a $10 million no-interest loan from an anonymous donor and put it toward reclaiming nearby farmlands to expand the bird's potential habitat. Cornell dispatched members of its crack birding team, the Sapsuckers. The mission was deeply classified; no one breathed a word to the press. To avoid suspicion from the locals, who were sure to cast a curious eye at out-of-towners prowling the woods without duck boots and shotguns, the searchers—between cold, wet vigils in the dense sliver of swampland—would spend the next year crashing at an unluxurious ranch house that had come with some of the newly acquired land.
OF ALL THE ENVIRONMENTAL HORRORS wrought by our destruction of the great forests of the South, the near-annihilation of the ivorybill is one of the most egregious. The largest woodpecker in North America, it stands just shy of two feet tall, talon to crest, with a three-foot wingspan and a sturdy white dagger of beak. The male wears a backswept vermilion crest radiating all the iconic power of a shark fin, and bolts of white plumage zigzag up its neck, as if poised to skewer its baleful golden eyes. The ivorybill's nickname is "the Lord God Bird." It's difficult, according to those who'd know, to behold the creature without being seized by the urge to roar, "Lord God, what a bird!"
Over the years, the creature's splendor has gotten it into trouble. Even before Columbus, Native Americans killed ivorybills in quantity, using the bird's vibrant feathers to jazz up their personal plumage. According to Phillip Hoose, author of 2004's The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, Indians also carried around little sachets of crushed ivorybill heads, hoping it might help them poke holes in their enemies. In the early 19th century, frontier tchotchke hawkers sold ivorybill heads as souvenirs. Before cameras, ornithologists didn't simply watch birds; they shot them. So a species's fondest admirers could be among its greatest threats. (In 1820, Audubon himself killed three and used them as models for one of his paintings, which shows the birds gang-harassing a black beetle.) Collectors paid top dollar for stuffed ivorybills; one Victorian naturalist cherished the birds so highly that he accumulated 61 specimens in his private inventory. Hungry backwoods philistines simply ate them.
According to one account, though, ivorybills didn't surrender without a fight. In 1809, Scottish ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in a North Carolina swamp but only grazed it, to his later regret. He brought the wounded bird back to his hotel room, where it chiseled a 15-inch hole in the wall. He then tied it to a mahogany table, which it quickly pecked to chips. When Wilson tried to restrain it, he was gored bloodily and repeatedly. The bird expired after three days on hunger strike.
The ivory-billed woodpecker's Latin title is Campephilus principalis, which translates approximately to "number-one caterpillar aficionado." The bird's fussy diet—beetles and grubs that dwell deep in the subdermis of ailing old-growth trees—depends on huge forests with enough old trees to support a healthy population of wood-boring insects. But in the aftermath of the Civil War, southern forests, their inhabitants be damned, suffered the most brutal massacre ever inflicted on an American wetland ecosystem, disappearing in the advance of metastasizing railroads, satisfying the nation's surging appetite for lumber and clear-cut farmland. Timber companies scalped mammoth tracts—some bought for as little as 12 cents an acre—and milled the ancient trees into wood for house frames, ammunition crates, automobile chassis, and coffins. Many of the bottomland forests in the upper South were razed entirely. Logging firms descended like locusts on the Big Woods, which once spanned 24 million contiguous acres across seven states. When the sawdust cleared, only 4.4 million scattered acres of habitat remained.
In the thirties, Cornell ornithologist James Tanner discovered 13 ivorybills in one of the last remaining islands of habitat, known as the Singer Tract, an 81,000-acre forest in northeastern Louisiana that the Singer company had been slowly turning into cabinets for its sewing machines. But in 1937, Singer sold the forest to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, which resisted conservationists' entreaties and destroyed the woods. In 1944, illustrator Don Eckelberry sketched a solitary female ivorybill roosting in an ash tree on the edge of the ruins. Outside of rumors and unconfirmed reports, the bird would not be positively identified by another person until Gene Sparling came along.
WHEN THE SEARCHERS finally revealed to the world, in April 2005, that the ivorybill had risen from the ashes, it touched off a media frenzy the likes of which the birding world had never seen. Every news organ from CNN to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch trumpeted the sighting. It hit the front page and editorial section of The New York Times; 60 Minutes sent a crew to the swamp; and NPR aired so many stories on the woodpecker, it seemed to have been adopted as the network mascot.
What fueled the furor was the ecstatic sensation that, for once, nature had pardoned our trespasses against it and returned to us a marvel we had tried our damnedest to destroy. After years of depressing portents of annihilated species, of ice caps in retreat, of the Kyoto Protocol ignored, of levee-bound rivers hurling our coastal wetlands out to sea, our mental picture of the future had begun to look like an endless desert with a single lonely species—our own—treading the sands. The ivorybill allowed us to savor the rare hope that the damage dealt our planet is not so wholly irreparable as we've feared.
One evening last May, I sat with Ron Rohrbaugh, Cornell's director of ivorybill research, on the edge of the swamp, pondering the woodpecker's resurrection. "That this bird squeezed through this bottleneck of time and habitat devastation—to think it made it through all that time . . ." Here Rohrbaugh trailed off, and his eyes grew red and moist. "It's just . . . miraculous."
And the woodpecker's odds in Arkansas are getting better, not worse. Since February 2004, the Nature Conservancy, with help from partners, has acquired or optioned more than 18,500 acres of potential habitat, with designs on a total of 200,000 acres in the next decade, half of which are to be reforested.
At the moment, no part of the forest is off-limits to the public, though access to 5,000 acres around Bayou de View is strictly managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which issues a handful of area permits each day. Duck hunters are welcomed. It may seem a bewildering policy to allow people to discharge shotguns within range of the world's rarest bird, but the folks at Cornell and TNC are quick to point out that the ivorybill wouldn't have survived if duck hunters, starting back in the thirties, hadn't led the fight to preserve the habitat, financing the state and federal purchase of 300,000 Big Woods acres and, via a six-year legal showdown in the seventies, preventing the Army Corps of Engineers from draining the swamp.
If a nest should turn up, the ivorybill effort will probably close off a half-mile cordon around the tree and maintain a cautious watch. But so far, no nest has revealed itself. Nor can the searchers say with any certainty that they've laid eyes on more than one bird; all positive sightings where sex could be determined have been of a male. (And, of course, he may have been the last of his kind, an omega man doomed to disappear beneath the bayou's coffee-colored waters.) So, right now, anything but watching and waiting is out of the question.
"Until we know we've got a viable population, captive breeding would be way too risky," says Rohrbaugh. After all, the measuring and weighing of a wild California condor chick in 1980 stressed the animal enough to kill it, and no one is eager to go down in history as the person whose well-intentioned bungling accidentally murdered the last of the ivorybills.
It's also possible that the bird's gene pool has withered so drastically that the remaining individuals are too severely inbred for long-term survival. But people like Tim Gallagher cling to a faith that the ivorybill will endure. Take the whooping crane, he says, which by the forties had dwindled to 15 creatures, and the condor, which bottomed out at just 22 wild birds in 1983; both species are now reproducing well, if only after millions upon millions of dollars spent resuscitating them. Gallagher believes the ivorybill may also still lurk in swamps in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida: "It's hard to say how many are out there, but I'm certain we didn't run into the last one in the world."
THOUGH THE BIG WOODPECKER may be hard to come by out in the swamp, you can find thousands of them 15 minutes east of Bayou de View, in Brinkley, where the bird appears on billboards, commemorative platters, mobiles, key rings, and T-shirts advertised on roadside marquees along with cut-rate suitcases of beer.
It's oddly fortunate, for both the bird and its environs, that the ivorybill resurfaced in one of the poorest places in America. Locally, hopes run high that it could help reverse the fortunes of the long-downtrodden Delta towns via an influx of ecotourism dollars. And plummeting prices for soybeans, cotton, and rice have allowed the Nature Conservancy to snap up disused cropland at bargain-basement prices.
Emblems of a desperate hope for the bird's revival, and the money sure to follow, fairly overwhelm Brinkley (pop. 3,567) these days. The town's main drag now hosts the Ivory Billed Inn; the Ivory-Bill Nest, a gewgaw shop; a hair salon specializing in "woodpecker haircuts" (black and white finger paint slathered onto the forescalp and sides of the head, finished with a gelled red crest up top); and Gene's Barbecue, where the menu includes the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Burger, Salad, and Hot Fudge Brownie.
One day last spring, I stopped in on the mayor, Billy Clay, whose head was topped with an immaculate polygon of silver hair. "The saddest day in Brinkley is graduation, because we spend all that money putting them through school, then all the kids move on," he said, adding that, like the rest of the town's citizens, he was praying that the ivorybill might help deliver the place from destitution, though the riches weren't yet flooding in.
Fifteen miles south, Clarendon (pop. 1,859) was holding its annual Big Woods Birding Festival, a sort of miniature carnival nucleating around avian motifs. According to the advance press, the star of the show, the absent-in-flesh-only ivorybill, was to be improbably feted with, among other things, something called a "mini-lawnmower tractor pull," a fishing derby, and, apropos of crackpot obsessions and contested extinctions, a performance by an Elvis impersonator.
Clarendon sits on the White River, the Big Woods' main aquatic artery. Ambient conditions there approximated those at an open-air shvitz, and the atmosphere was suffused with the thick, diarrheal odor of decaying vegetable matter, courtesy of a sawmill on the outskirts of town. The aroma mingled now and again with sweet, grease-scented siroccos of funnel-cake smell drifting up from an undersized midway a few blocks down. TNC's Jay Harrod was walking along Main Street, inspecting the rear bumpers of parked cars. "I was looking for out-of-state tags," he said. "There don't seem to be any." Far-flung ivorybill seekers, aware that there was little hope in finding the refuge's most elusive inhabitant while the trees were green, had mostly stayed home.
Children wailed and brawled inside a huffing Moonwalk. Three bullish policemen stood fingering the butts of their revolvers, as though expecting a riot to erupt any minute. On the far side of the courthouse lawn, a couple from the Little Rock Zoo gave a presentation on birds of prey. The woman wore a tropical-print visor and narrated through a treble-heavy public-address system while her husband, a man with a head of frizzy red hair that looked like a disguise, milled through the crowd with a turkey vulture named Gomez perched on his forearm, which was gloved in a sort of talon-proof mukluk. The woman described how the vultures defecate on their legs to keep cool—and deter predators with impossibly noxious vomit. A man eating a barbecue sandwich turned ashen and stopped chewing. He looked up at the vulture, back at the sandwich, then resumed miserably.
I ran into Gene Sparling, who was on his way to give a presentation on the ivorybill at the American Legion Hall. I'd heard about a catfish fry happening later that night, and I asked if he was going. He said he'd be there but reminded me that we had a swamp-patrolling date scheduled for the crack of dawn, which I pointed out was going to cramp our style at the open bar.
"I know it," Sparling replied. "I was hoping I'd be able to get dead drunk and pass out somewhere." Then, seeming to remember his new status as a respectable member of the ornithological community, he quickly added, "Just kidding. Haven't done that in years. It'd probably kill me."
The couple from the zoo departed, and the imitation Elvis took the stage. A teenager stood looking on, nodding along with "G.I. Blues" and eating a dilute snow cone the color of boiled shrimp. Strapped to his feet were what appeared to be a pair of owls, his costume, he explained, for an upcoming performance of a tribal dance. I asked if he hoped to find the ivorybill.
"I heard they already found 'em," he said. "They got a bunch of 'em locked up."
"Who do?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said.
I'VE NEVER BEEN AN AVID WATCHER of birds, but after my fruitless trip to Arkansas I began suffering from a spell of ivorybill mania myself. During idle moments driving or sitting at home in North Carolina, I caught myself scanning the sky and nearby trees. At the public library one afternoon, I saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker hammering a pine outside. I stood up and yelled, "Hey, a woodpecker!"
Midsummer, I got hold of Gene Sparling, and we planned a weeklong kayak trip in the autumn, when the leaves would be off the trees and the media swarm would have thinned—and when I might have a shot at getting a glimpse, maybe even a photograph, of the phantom bird. The morning of our trip, I breakfasted at Gene's Barbecue with Sparling. We were joined by Nancy DeLamar and Scott Simon, of the Nature Conservancy. Simon, the state director, talked about TNC's local land acquisitions, which he said had been going well. The organization had just closed on an additional 5,000 acres, and earlier in the week they'd penned a $10 million state, federal, and private commitment for new conservation easements. "But if we had more money, we'd do more," he said.
When the plates were cleared, Sparling and I headed to Bayou de View. Sparling had spent his summer on the public-relations circuit, wooing donors for TNC's habitat-expansion efforts and reciting the tale of his sighting for a relentless battery of media. "It's good to get away from all that confusion," he told me.
We drove past fields of cotton, which still had downy microcumuli clinging to their brittle branches, remnants of the autumn harvest. Where the farmland ended, the Big Woods rose in a gray-green mantle. Crossing the bridge over the bayou, Sparling slowed his truck, panning his gaze through the sky above the road. "As many times as I've been over this bridge," he said, "I do always keep my eyes peeled when I drive through." (In fact, a Fish and Wildlife employee had supposedly seen the bird there a few days earlier, though he hadn't spotted enough of the field marks—bill, plumage, etc.—for the sighting to constitute big news.)
Sparling parked on a gravel landing and we began hoisting the kayaks off the rack of his truck. A pair of search-team members emerged from the forest, carrying a canoe. One wore a Sherpa hat and a five-o'clock shadow. The other was dressed as a shrub, in a camo jacket bristling with little leaflike tatters.
"Seeing anything, gentlemen?" Sparling asked.
"Nope," said the man in the Sherpa hat. They'd been out there erecting tree blinds in which the searchers were assigned to perch for eight cold hours a day.
A Ford F-150 with Montana plates rattled down to the landing. A small fleet of kayaks was belted to the roof. A middle-aged man got out and ambled over to us. He had big aviator shades and an air of highway loneliness about him.
"What are you guys looking for?" he asked, noting my camera, which was outfitted with a zoom lens the size of a soup thermos.
"Take a wild guess," Sparling said. He and Sparling exchanged introductions, and the man raised his eyes and rocked back on his heels.
"The number-one spotter," the man said. "I thought it might be you."
Sparling shifted somewhat uncomfortably, and he asked the guy what he did for a living back in Montana.
"Which career? Which life?" the man said. "Now mostly I'm just a vagabond bum, looking to do kayaking and birdwatching full-time."
Sparling said, "A man after my own heart; it's a wonderful life."
We slid our boats into the bayou. Paddling away, Sparling cast a sympathetic glance back at the nomadic birder. "I feel bad for these guys who drive all the way across the country to try to see this bird," he said. "I'd like to tell 'em I spent a year out here and didn't see a damn thing. Could've saved him the trip."
Sparling glided out into the silty water, threading his way through the cypress maze. A few minutes in, I saw a bird, a flash of white vivid against the tree trunks. "Gene!" I said.
"Kingfisher," he said, without bothering to look. "To be honest," he added, "I have somewhat let go of the need to see the bird again myself. Seeing it's not nearly as important as restoring the habitat. If we give him a place to live, he can take care of himself. It doesn't matter whether we know where he is or not."
The fall had been dry in Arkansas, and the water in the swamp was low. The vandals of the forest, beavers, had dammed the channel every few hundred yards, and we had to vault strenuously over their blockades, breathing in the spicy stink of their musk.
The bayou broadened into an oblong black lake, and Sparling suddenly got quiet, watching a black confetti of crows tumbling above the tree line about 150 yards away. "Hold on," he said. "The bird was seen right here, getting mobbed by crows, and these guys are sure as hell chasing something." But the crows veered out of sight. Their cawing faded and the only sound in the swamp was the conch-shell moan of Interstate 40, which the woodpecker(s) had almost certainly crossed to be seen up this way. Sparling shook his head at the thought of it. "It's amazing: Here you've got what's probably the rarest bird in the world, regularly flying over I-40." He shrugged and paddled on. "Sure hope he's flying high."
Farther down, we pulled out into a shallow canyon of trees where the forest had been cleared to accommodate a long, stolid parade of telephone poles. The sun was throwing a platinum glow on the dark water, and the trees blurred and shimmered with reflected, dying light. Dusk was coming on, and whatever birds were out there would soon be heading home to roost. I shipped my paddle, my boat turning idly in the autumn wind like the needle on a compass. And then something caught my eye, a far-off flare of red, white, and black. I raised my camera, nearly dropping it in my haste, and focused on the flitting colors, which turned out to be a load of glossy new sedans on an 18-wheeler barreling east along the interstate.