From “A Wing and a Prayer:” Closing in on the legendary Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Beverly and I had just set off through the mushy swamplands of Central Louisiana with a band of researchers looking for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Suddenly the lead scientist, Steve Latta, stopped, turned around and warned us we might run into water moccasins along the way.

The National Aviary’s Steve Latta (left) and former federal scientist Tommy Michot prepare to begin a search in the woods of central Louisiana. Top photo includes volunteer veteran wildlife biologist Peggy Shrum. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal unless otherwise noted.

“It’s usually the third person in line that’s in danger,’’ he told us, which would be Beverly. She happens to far outrank me in her desperate fear of snakes. We looked at each other and quickly traded places.

Venomous water moccasins are the least of the challenges, though, for these researchers who believe this near-mythical woodpecker is still out here. The woodpecker hasn’t actually been seen for sure since 1944, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to declare the bird extinct unless convincing evidence is found that it’s still with us.  

We’d lined up our visit with the group called Project Principalis – a reference to the bird’s Latin name — while researching our new book on bird conservation. As “A Wing and a Prayer: The Race to Save our Vanishing Birds’’ hits bookstores and online outlets, we’re telling some favorite stories from our travels so Flying Lessons readers can get a sense of what’s in the book.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker saga is this week’s feature because the bird is once again in the news. The Principalis crew just released a 26-page compendium of the 10 years of evidence they’ve gathered on the woodpecker, enough to get The New York Times along with a string of other organizations to sit up and take note. While the evidence still remains “fuzzy,’’ as The Times put it, the report does prove that the clamor over the bird isn’t going to slow down.

An illustration of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker by John James Audubon.

“We’ve developed a body of evidence that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker does indeed exist,” Steve Latta said when we talked this week. “The study is the only one since the 1930s that uses multiple lines of evidence involving repeated observation of multiple birds. Each of these lines of evidence is very strong. But it’s the cumulative evidence that leads us to be really confidence that this species does exist.”

The breadth of the work these volunteers have done is impressive. Their new study is based on a half million hours of camera sweeps looking for the bird, 70,000 hours of audio recordings trying to capture its calls and 3,265 drone flights looking for the bird from on high. The full study of their results, including the fuzzy photos, sound graphics and assessments of why its so hard to find this bird, is published in the journal Ecology and Evolution and can be found here.

The only actual Ivory-billed Woodpeckers we saw were these kept in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s specimen collection.

Latta says it’s hard to anticipate where the federal agency will come down on the Ivory-billed. The Fish and Wildlife Service has been close-mouthed about where it’s headed with a decision expected to come before the end of the year. There’s a worthy argument that keeping questionable species on protected status too long hurts the overall effort to help birds and other wildlife that are known for sure to need to need support to survive.

We encountered neither water moccasins nor Ivory-billed Woodpeckers two years ago when we toured that secret section of Louisiana, where each of the Principalis volunteers says they’ve encountered one of the birds over the past decades. These sightings are part of one of the most intriguing elements of our relationship with birds: We’re often most interested in those that are hardest – or in this case nearly impossible – to see.

Still, there aren’t many creatures of any kind that attract the clamor or hold the level of allure that this huge, lanky, legendary woodpecker does. We felt it throughout our visit to Louisiana – and every time we talked about the woodpecker on our 25,000 miles of travel. Just about everybody in the study of birds, and also well beyond the field, is familiar with the woodpecker and follows the developments with deep interest.

Steve Latta shows off his Ivory-billed Woodpecker tattoo.

There’s an equally strong argument that high-octane birds like the woodpecker, as well as more common beloved species like Bald Eagles, Ospreys and California Condors, help keep people tuned into the conservation demands that help protect all birds.

“The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is widely recognized as an iconic species, representing fragility of habitats, conservation, and hope,” Latta told us. “Our own hope is that in documenting the persistence of these birds – despite all the odds against them – we will inspire many other people to care about not only the Ivory-billed, but the many other threatened and endangered species that require our attention. Actions to document and protect the Ivory-billed will thus have impacts on avian conservation far greater than the woodpecker itself.”

And there are few species that have provoked the kind of strong feelings for as many years as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

At the end of each day’s searching with the Principalis group in Louisiana, we’d sit cooking dinner and poking at the fire ring they’ve set up in the backyard of their compound. One night we went around the circle while each member told of encounters they’d had with the bird.

Steve Latta, who has breathed life into this search by aligning the National Aviary with the cause, told us he got his look at the woodpecker on his first trip down here four years ago. He was walking through the woods not far from where we sat when a black-and-white shape swooshed past him close enough for him to get a good look.

“I’m not seeing what I wanted to see,’’ he says. “I’m seeing what I saw and it matches perfectly.’’ After the bird disappeared that day, Latta circled the area for hours without another sighting, and then he sat down literally shaking from the encounter. “The thing that shocked me was that for nights afterwards, I’m like, ‘It’s real. It’s out there.’  ‘’ He added: “That’s why we’re doing what we do. We have a responsibility to find this bird.’’

The full story of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is told at the beginning of the book, Chapter 1, titled “On the Edge of Extinction.” The book is available now in bookstores and online outlets, and here’s a link to where you can find it.

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