In February 2004, naturalist Gene Sparling was kayaking through a wildlife refuge in Arkansas when he saw an unusually large, red crested woodpecker of a kind he’d never seen before. Cornell’s Living Bird magazine editor Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison, a local college professor and photographer, were in the area researching a book, and whilst following up the sighting had their own encounter with what they were now convinced was an ivory-billed woodpecker. That is, a bird that ought to have been extinct for over half a century. In these life-changing encounters all three of them had seen a ghost, a dead bird reanimated before their eyes. Or had they?
For what little my opinion is worth, based on what I’ve read (including Gallagher’s entertaining popular science account, The Grail Bird, the ‘official’ announcement in a paper in Science and some of the scholarly rebuttals that followed) I’m convinced that at least one ivory bill was indeed still alive and double-rapping in the Arkansas woods in 2004. Many disagree. If you’ve an hour or so to kill there are less entertaining ways to spend it than sifting through the evidence on the Cornell Ornithology lab’s website – though since the chances of a viable population being found are basically none either way, the was-it-or-wasn’t-it question is purely academic.
And it’s not really why I raised the great ivory spectre. Debates about the rediscovery will run and run, there being nothing birders – scientists too – like more than to dredge up and rerun an old argument. So too will discussion about the wisdom of spending millions of dollars on ground searches (now finished for the foreseeable future) and recovery plans for a probably extinct bird: whether it is justified based on the resulting focus on bottomland hardwood forest conservation, or whether it wastefully pulls money away from other programs.
Forget all that for now. The ivory-billed woodpecker was once dead. And to all intents and purposes is now. Yet still it lives. In poetry, in prose, in visual art; in regional identity, in the musings of folk singers and in the wildest dreams of ornithologists, Campephilus principalis haunts cultural imagination in the United States and beyond. This shouldn’t be surprising. For whilst most of us make great pretence at rationality, aren’t we all, deep down, creatures of the heart and not of the head? Whilst I affirm that only evidence-based, science-led nature conservation is likely to achieve results, is it really statistics and sober analysis that makes the human spirit sing?
The ivory billed woodpecker does lift our spirits – indeed, those few who saw one in recent years report being quite overcome by it – and not merely because it is a big, enigmatic, awe-inspiring bird, but because of what it might mean. Of how it signifies that we might not have completely messed things up, and how a noisy bird the size of a crow might be able to persist in places outside of human perception. That there is some feather-light hope, however fragile, of the world’s renewal. Of its resurrection.
In the musings of folk singers: