- Bottomland GhostSouthern Encounters and Obsessions with the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
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Among birders in the South, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a haunting presence whose status is debated at ornithological meetings, in popular media outlets and leading scientific journals, and on birding web sites such as the Ivory-bill Researchers Forum. The woodpecker conjures up images of deep and foreboding bottomland forests, of John James Audubon exploring and painting the South, and of a wild southern landscape home to wolves, panthers, and innumerable species of birds, long before the southern forests were felled to create fields for cotton and soybeans. The ivory-bill's nicknames—the Lord God Bird, the Log God Bird, and King of the Woodpeckers—indicate the esteem that birders, naturalists, and others hold for this majestic species.1
Until the announcement in 2005 of the rediscovery of the ivory-bill at the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas, and even more recent reports from the Florida Panhandle, there had not been a broadly accepted ivory-bill sighting for sixty years. Had the bird survived? If so, where? The authenticity of the few photos of the bird that have surfaced has been debated by the ornithological and birding communities, as have many reported sightings. Some of the sightings seemed valid enough to make hardened skeptics think twice about the ivory-bill's status, but even after the Arkansas sightings—including a successful filming of the bird by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology-led search team in 2004—consensus on the bird's survival remains as elusive as the bird itself.2 In a competitive birding world full of large egos, rediscovery is the ultimate achievement for a member of the birding tribe, and the ivory-bill is the Holy Grail among birders. There also exists a distinct hierarchy in the birding world, and reports of rare birds made by hunters and fishers rank low in the birding caste system. Furthermore, skepticism of ivory-bill sightings has also hardened because logging has greatly altered the woodpecker's southern bottomland forest habitat. Many believed the ivory-bill depended on huge expanses of virgin bottomland forest, but by the end of World War II, almost no virgin bottomland forest remained in the South.3 It was easy to believe the ivory-bill had long since disappeared with its habitat.
So why has the ivory-bill drawn so much attention that it lands on the front page of the New York Times? Is it the beauty of the bird? Is it because it is the largest woodpecker in the United States, slightly larger than a crow? Is it its association with a more environmentally pristine South? Does the ivory-bill garner attention because it is another uniquely southern feature, such as a bottle tree or juke joint, that fascinates outsiders? Or do the reasons for our fascination run deeper? Is it because the ivory-bill seemed to rise from the dead? Indeed, the ivory-bill has gained a mythical identity among birders and ornithologists—it is a ghost bird, appearing and vanishing, allowing no more than glimpses and leaving nothing but stories.
Although reports of the woodpecker have met with skepticism, I have no doubt [End Page 7] that the bird survives. My own research on the ivory-bill in Louisiana began well before the Arkansas team released its findings. I sought to discover why stories of the ivory-bill persisted and why people kept reporting ivory-bills when, according to many in the scientific community, the ivory-bill had been extinct since the 1940s. The last documented sightings came from Madison Parish in northeast Louisiana in the early 1940s, photographed by the godfather of ivory-bill research, ornithologist James Tanner of...