Redemption in the bayou

August 03, 2005

THE REMARKABLE thing about ivory-billed woodpeckers is that for 60 years we couldn't find them, but they could always find them. Deep in the forest primeval, in a secluded Arkansas Shangri-La, birds that were supposed to be extinct went about their birds-and-bees business and kept the species going. Bird-watchers yearned to spot them, ornithologists convinced themselves they were there, careers were ruined by tantalizing ghost-sightings or maybe-sightings or wishful-sightings or within-reasonable-doubt sightings; humans would be struck by an unnatural fever for ivory bills, while the birds themselves sought each other out and kept on with their sasquatchian lives.

The ivory bill was recorded on a phonograph in 1935, and last reliably spotted in the 1940s. Then came the announcement in April that Tim Gallagher, of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, and Bobby Harrison, an Alabama bird-watcher, had been canoeing on the Bayou DeView (a name worth repeating several times over) when an ivory bill flew right overhead. The world of birders erupted in excitement. Then came the inevitable debunking by experts. How could they be sure it wasn't a pileated woodpecker? And then - who would have thought - the doubters recanted on Monday. Cornell had supplied a recording, and there could be no mistake. This was the real McCoy.

What a satisfying story this is. Gone but not forgotten - found after so many years - lost - then found again, for sure. Here's North America's largest woodpecker, with a wingspan of up to 3 feet; here's a modern-day swamp that is reassuringly still so hard to get around in that for half a century no one has been sure what's in it; and here are the obsessive bushwhackers out to find their bird, acutely aware of the risks to their reputations of making a false claim, determined nonetheless - and the prize is neither gold nor glory, but simply the pleasure of having done it, and of knowing that the ivory bill endures.

As for the woodpeckers, they've been back in there all this time, and it's a good bet that their sighting of two men in a boat meant just about nothing to them. They have their lives to get on with.

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