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Ivory-billed woodpecker alive in Big Woods

More than 60 years after the ivory-billed woodpecker was thought to be extinct in the United States, the Holy Grail of ornithologists has been rediscovered. It's like finding a prehistoric pterodactyl.

What could be more exciting!

On Feb. 11, 2004, at about 1:30 p.m., while kayaking through the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Arkansas, Gene Sparling of Hot Springs, Ark., saw an unusually large, red crested (male) woodpecker, colored black and white.

Since then seven credible sightings, along with other evidence — video and recordings, have convinced scientists the ivory-billed survives in the “Big Woods” of this swampy refuge.

And obviously if there is a male, there is bound to be a female somewhere nearby.

The sightings have led to the formation of the Big Woods Conservation Partnership, whose 10-year goal is to reserve 200,000 more acres of forest habitat and rivers.

Before the Civil War, some 52 million acres of the Southeast were a wilderness of hardwood forests and wetlands and the homeland of the birds: from Texas and Oklahoma on the west to North Carolina and Florida on the east. Nearly half of the bottomland hardwood forests were found in the Mississippi River Delta spanning seven states: Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana.

After the Civil War, the lumber industry geared up, and the ancient, old-growth trees fell to the axe, killing the beetle larvae — the main food source of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Gone were millions of acres of hardwoods that once blanketed the southern Delta region, replaced with cotton: white gold.

Extensive searches have been done in the past — in Cuba and many Southern states, including Louisiana, Texas, and Florida. In the late 1970s, a deer hunter reported spotting an ivory-billed while sitting in his deer stand in the Achafalaya Basin in Louisiana.

A team of searchers set out from Louisiana State University and a couple of them heard possible “kent” calls and caught glimpses of what they believed were ivory-bills.

Another sighting occurred in 1999 when David Kulivan, an undergraduate forestry major at LSU, observed two large woodpeckers while hunting turkeys in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, located approximately 6 miles east of Slidell, La., and approximately 1 mile east of the town of Pearl River.

He later described the birds in great detail to biologists and ornithologists, many of whom believed Kulivan had observed an ivory-billed.

The problem with all of the searches is the lack of hard physical evidence.

Other partners in the Big Wood Conservation Partnership include the Arkansas Game and Fish commission, Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., Arkansas State University, Louisiana State University, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, Birdman Productions, LLC, and Civic Enterprises, LLC.

If you are planning a visit to the area, please cooperate with local authorities and obey all local regulations established to protect the highly endangered ivory-billed (larger than a crow) and its habitat. Absolutely no playback calls or drumming sounds are allowed.

Please observe your highest standards of birding ethics.

Also, be aware that the chances of actually making a sighting of this elusive bird are extremely small — a massive search effort over the last year has yielded very few contacts.

I'm not a birdie man, but this rediscovery takes my breath away, more than walking up a flight of stairs or seeing a pretty woman. I just might become a birdie man instead of a hunter where ducks are about as extinct as the ivory-billed.

Wayne Capooth — outdoorsman, writer, and physician — is medical director at the University of Memphis Student Health Services. He has written four books: The History of the Millsaps Family, Red Letter Days, The Golden Age of Waterfowling, and The Golden Age of Hunting.

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