Search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker
Louisiana Swamps Hint of Fabled Bird
Listen to Christopher Joyce's report: Part 1 | Part 2
*View footage of the ivory-bill, filmed during a 1935 expedition.
See the photo gallery
March 18, 2002 -- The ivory-billed woodpecker was one of North America's showiest and most-revered birds. Always rare, it is now presumed extinct. Since the last confirmed sighting in the 1950s, people have often claimed to have seen one, but proof has been as elusive as the bird.
"Look at this! It looks like somebody took this big oversized bill and jammed it so far into their head, you know, they've got this kind of surprised look on their face with these big, wild, white eyes. And they're carrying around this big thing and they don't know what to do with it -- it's just sort of a disproportionately large bill. And that's where the action is. This is how a bird interacts with its world."
Three years ago, a credible report of a sighting in Louisiana electrified birders around the country. A forestry student was hunting in southeastern Louisiana and claimed he saw two ivory-bills. Experts cross-examined him and his story held up. This past January, two teams were dispatched to investigate. Remsen, who led a team backed by Zeiss Sports Optics, recruited six experts for a dream expedition: a 30-day search for the bird.
Part II: Bird Lust
The second team, from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, also set out to search for the 'Lord God' bird, as the ivory-bill has been called. They brought the latest in acoustic technology to the search -- 12 sets of electronic ears to record bird songs over a two-month period.
Powered by a car battery, each unmanned acoustic recording unit (ARU) contains a microphone and tiny computer, and is wrapped up inside what looks like a plastic piece of bathroom tubing. Expedition member Chris Clark is director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell's Lab of Ornithology. His staff, Rob MacCurdy, Tom Calupca and Amanda Waak, designed the units, which researchers have used in studies of other animals, including whales and dolphins.
Navigating the bayou by boat, the team searched for dead trees hiding the beetle larvae that ivory-bills were known to eat. The ARUs were then attached to nearby trees, where they remained for the next two months, recording sounds in the most promising areas. Cornell has since retrieved the units and computers have started scanning the recordings for signs of the bird.
The woodpecker lived in low-lying hardwood forests, and apparently disappeared about 50 years ago when the last of those forests was cut. Now the ivory-bill has become a sort of forest deity for the 60 million self-proclaimed birders in the United States. Finding an ivory-bill would guarantee scientific fame.
But there's something more than ambition involved, there's bird lust. Director of the Lab of Ornithology, John Fitzpatrick, has it -- bad.
"It's so hard for me to talk about the idea of seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker without actually getting a little choked up," he tells NPR correspondent Christopher Joyce. "It would be so huge, it's a bird that everybody who becomes a birdwatcher, who looked at the pictures in the Peterson Field Guide since they could read, and have dreamed about this spectacular bird and all these beautiful forests it was in. The idea of actually laying eyes on one, I would burst out into tears."
Read Christopher Joyce's interview with Christopher Clark, director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
Learn more about the Laboratory of Ornithology's work with Alex Chadwick's report on a new CD of animal sounds.
Read more about the expedition at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Web site.
Cornell has applied the same recording technology to field research on elephants, whales and other birds. Hear those recordings.
*Film from the Arthur A. Allen papers, 1899-1968, by permission from the Laboratory of Ornithology and the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.