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The Elusive Ivory Bill Woodpecker

Photo courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Close Encounter ó "Sonny Boy" perches on the arm of J.J. Kuhn in 1935 during the only known detailed study of the Ivory Bill Woodpecker.
Lee Hassler
Staff Writer

(Photos reprinted with permission from Cornell Lab of Ornithology; http://www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory/)

   Every kid at some point in their lives dreams of finding a dinosaur or some similarly exotic creature that does not exist.

   Though the vast majority of young dreamers rarely fulfill this fantasy, David Luneau, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, accomplished his dream when he managed to capture the flight of an Ivory Billed Woodpecker on video in 2004. The emergence of this film has proven to be the beginning of an increasingly intensive search for a bird thought to be extinct for almost a century as well as a frantic quest for information about how to manage lands to accommodate the proliferation of the species.

   In a symposium given in the Fine Arts Center on Monday Oct. 10, Luneau reflected on his experiences in searching for the elusive Ivory Bill Woodpecker, describing his frustration with seeing evidence of the Ivory Bill Woodpecker but not being able to catch the bird on video or camera.

   "I finally decided that the only way to get footage of the bird would be to leave the camera running at all times," Luneau stated of the search leading up to his filming of the Ivory Bill.

    Since the 1940s, many sightings of the elusive Ivory Bill from Florida to East Texas have remained nothing more than unconfirmed sightings. Though it was speculated that there may have been merit to many of these sightings, further investigation came to nothing. In one case photos were allegedly obtained only to be discounted as a hoax because of the inherent belief that the bird was indeed gone forever. In 1967 evidence in the form of a feather from an Ivory Bill being found added further to speculation that the bird may still exist although no other evidence was ever obtained to confirm the birdís existence. Once again the search dwindled.

    For over 30 years after the featherís discovery, unconfirmed sightings continued to manifest themselves to no avail until Zeiss Optics began sponsoring a search in 2002 in an attempt to confirm possible sightings of the Ivory Bill. This search eventually led to the Big Woods region of Arkansas that covers the White River, Cache River and Bayou Beaux drainage basins in 2003.

   Luneau's decision to continually film in 2004 paid off in a roughly four-second stretch of tape that showed a flash of a white-fringed bird flying off (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory/multimedia/). Because of the distance and vague visual of the flying bird, Cornell University's Ornithology department conducted a great deal of analysis. After intensive magnification of the film and measurements of markings and size of the bird in the video, the miracle was finally confirmed: the Ivory Bill was indeed "back from the grave."

Photo courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Search ó People intent on the discovery of the Ivory Bill Woodpecker slog through Arkansas swamps looking for signs or physical sightings of the rare bird.
    With the confirmation of the Ivory Bill, the objective of federal and state agencies turned to determining the best methods for managing for the Ivory Bill. Unfortunately, no substantial data currently exist other than the 1930s book "The Ivory Bill Woodpecker" by James Tanner, which documents a small now-extinct population in Louisiana. Though the book provides valuable insight into the eating and living habits of the Ivory Bill, biologists worry that the data is too narrow in range and scope to try to emulate precisely and note the need for more detailed data in order to evaluate the conditions necessary for the Ivory Bill to flourish across its entire range. Incidentally, the only Ivory Bill ever banded, Sonny Boy, was one of the birds in the focus of this book.

    With the new focus on managing for an endangered species, some concern has developed that the management goals could supersede the needs of local industries, particularly the timber industry. With the stigma of the northwestern spotted owl's impact on logging in the Pacific Northwest casting unease into both those who are tasked with managing the critical habitat areas with consideration of those whom their decisions impact, and those who will be directly affected by the management decisions, great caution is being taken with the direction of the management objectives. Luckily, the management of the Ivory Bill will focus mainly on cypress-tupelo old-growth swamps and river bottoms that are ill-suited for use by the timber industry for pine-plantation management. However, the overall impact of Ivory Bill Management on the timber industry remains open to speculation at this time.

    Forest industry representatives of the Pulp and Paper Resource Commission, including Georgia Pacific representative Gary Mayhew, express a great desire to support the Ivory Bill program as long as an ecological balance is observed by the management objectives. Similarly, International Paper Co. representative Randy Bowen expressed the desire of the forest industry to aid in any way as long as reasonable methods are used. However, he expressed doubts about the validity of the video proof.

   "I'm not convinced by the film, although it was a very well-delivered presentation," he said.

   The future of forest management in the South will certainly be impacted by the re-emergence of the Ivory Bill, though long-term effects will not be fully understood for quiet some time. As federal and state agencies, Cornell University and private organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the timber industries work hard to decide how to deal with this new management objective in terms of both short- and long-term objectives, the question of humans interacting with nature in an increasingly crowded world will manifest itself.

    Hopefully this experiment in a speciesí recovery will be the result of learning from past mistakes and help a species come back from extinction gracefully in harmony with the world that continues to change.

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© The Voice 2005
Revised 10/14/2005 03:19:34 PM ó http://www.uamont.edu/Organizations/TheVoice/3_6/ivory.htm