Search for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker

Story by Mara Kahn
Photos by Larry Rice
story first appeared in March 07 Canoe and Kayak

PADDLING OUR MUD-STREAKED canoes into a maze of mature bald cypress in Arkansas’ steamy Bayou DeView—a shadowy tableau of swamp-loving trees and acidic, tea-colored water—Marc, Larry and I make our first positive sighting. Unfortunately, it’s not the magnificent ivory-billed woodpecker we encounter, but rather the altogether common mosquito. A frenzied chorus of them dives voraciously into our succulent legs, ankles, and bare arms. If honesty could trump pride, all three of us would be hightailing it out of here right about…NOW. But this is only the first hour of our three-day quest—way too early to admit defeat.



We’ve come to catch a glimpse of the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker, officially extinct for 60 years until a lone kayaker named Gene Sparling observed one in February of 2004 in this very swamp, part of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Arkansas’ Monroe County. Known as the lord-god-bird—as in “Lord God, what a beautiful bird!”—the ivory-bill stands nearly two feet tall with a three-foot wingspan. It is North America’s largest woodpecker and sports an impressive dagger-like beak, dazzling jet-black and white feathers, and a pointed crest splashed in brilliant red.


But too much beauty can work against you. For centuries Native Americans hunted ivory-bills for the honor of wearing their bright plumage, and by the 1800s collectors were paying big bucks for the chance to stuff them with cotton rags. But it was the wanton destruction of the South’s wetland forests that finally decimated the ivory-bill’s numbers to, presumably, nothing. Nada, that is, until that winter afternoon when one landed 60 feet from Sparling’s touring kayak.


Since then, hundreds of scientists and bird aficionados from around the world have been combing these muggy wetlands. But despite their efforts, there were a mere 15 confirmed sightings in the 2004-2005 research season—and none at all last year. In fact, the only hard visual evidence to date is a researcher’s mega-fuzzy, four-second-long video. And while a recently announced $10,000 reward –to the person who leads an Arkansas wildlife official to an ivory-bill nest, roost cavity or feeding site in Arkansas— has only upped the ante, there were no other cars at the put-in. Nor will there be, with temps of over 100 degrees and the current mosquito plague, no one else would be crazy enough.


Larry and I had hoped Sparling himself was going to guide us through the labyrinthine Bayou DeView, and he was quite willing to join us—until we mentioned the depraved word “August.” An Arkansas native, he gently but firmly reminded us of the unbearable heat, low water levels, and dense tree cover this time of year. With as much genteel southern courtesy as he could muster, Gene let it be known that this was a terrible, even useless time to be searching for the rare bird. “Would you go see the Grand Canyon in a fog?” he asked.


Which led us to Marc McCord, a.k.a., Canoeman, a 6-foot,
4-inch, mustached, shag-haired, Frank Zappa concert promoter-turned-canoe guide who’d paddled the Bayou DeView in May of 2005, when critical portions were closed to the public. Like us, Canoeman was intrigued by the idea of coming here in the thick of summer, when everyone else had run off. Nobody else would be fool enough, we figured. Or maybe, just maybe, smart enough. For wouldn’t a bird who’d been shy enough to keep hidden for 60 years be more likely to reveal itself to a stealthy trio in the midst of the leafy summer than to noisy legions of electronics-toting scientists?



Blocked by deadfall and bloodied by skeeters, we finally turn back. Questioning our own sanity for being here in August, we regroup, and despite the 100-degree heat, pull on khakis, long-sleeved shirts and thick wool socks.


Pivoting sharply around submerged hardwoods, we stoically push deeper into the moss-draped, dank-smelling thicket, eagerly looking for a navigable channel. Bouncing off buttressed trunks, we’re like bumper cars in the bayou, making ever tighter turns into ever narrower channels. Less than a mile into it, blocked by deadfall and bloodied by skeeters, we finally turn back. Questioning our own sanity for being here in August, we regroup, and despite the 100-degree heat, pull on khakis, long-sleeved shirts and thick wool socks.


The Bayou DeView is ahllowed ground to paddlers. A thin slice of what Faulkner called The Big Woods, the fabled bottomland forests of the Lower Mississippi Valley once spanned 24 million unbroken acres across seven southern states, from Texas all the way to North Carolina. Today, two centuries of logging, draining, and dam building have reduced these rich floodplain forests to 4.4 million very fragmented acres. Only about 555,000 remain in Arkansas, and though sadly diminished, these 1,200-year-old backwater bayous practically beg to be explored by kayak or canoe.


Which is all Sparling, a 50-year-old local and amateur naturalist, was doing when the ghostly creature swooped out of the treetops—and extinction—and changed his life forever. Judging from the bird’s size and distinctive markings, he immediately knew he had just witnessed something extraordinary. He was almost afraid to admit to himself—let alone anyone else—that he had actually crossed paths with the legendary avis. Over the decades, there had been rumors and unsubstantiated tales of ivory-bills glimpsed here and there across its former range, but they had all been greeted with derision or disbelief. “Saying you saw an ivory-bill is akin to saying you saw Sasquatch, or were abducted by aliens,” admits Sparling, a small business entrepreneur and devoted father who enjoyed a quiet life until he decided to post his sighting on the Arkansas Canoe Club Web site.



The unassuming kayaker’s stunning revelation—and subsequent confirmation by respected ornithologists—took the conservation world by storm, precipitating what has undeniably become the world’s biggest, most publicized avian quest. Most of the media have long since left town, but the initial stampede of birders, boaters, and biologists has permanently altered the socioeconomics of the nearby hamlet of Brinkley.


The sign for Gene’s Restaurant and Barbecue reads “The Bird is the Word,” and its revamped menu entices tourists with “ivory-billed burgers” and “ivory-billed brownies.” Just across the street, an eight-foot tall wood-carved pecker clings to a pole outside the recently renamed Ivory-Billed Inn. A few shops down, the Ivory-Bill Nest is a gift shop almost entirely dedicated to bird-inspired tchotchkes and t-shirts, while the daily special at Penny’s Family Hair Care is—you guessed it—the Woodpecker Haircut (think fauxhawk with a scarlet-tinged pinnacle—a steal at $25). Lucky for Larry, our time had run out: it was time to meet Canoeman.


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