Tourism Grows Around Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

The discovery of an ivory-billed woodpecker, which many had believed to be extinct, outside Brinkley, Ark., has brought profound changes to the town. With hundreds of birders and scientists passing through to catch a glimpse of the bird, locals are attempting to capitalize on the excitement.

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The discovery of a rare bird is changing life in Brinkley, Arkansas. That's a town several miles from the spot where scientists say they rediscovered the ivory-billed woodpecker. That's a bird that many thought was extinct. People in Brinkley, Arkansas, are not just enthusiastic about this news. Many are in the grip of what could only be called ivory-billed fever. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

There's a hand-painted sign on Main Street in Brinkley that gets a lot of attention from visitors. It says `Woodpecker haircut, $25.'

Unidentified Man: Hello.

Ms. PENNY CHILDS: Hello. Thank you.

ALLEN: Inside, Penny Childs is wearing a smock embroidered with Peckerwood Penny and a picture of an ivory-billed woodpecker. Childs, the owner of Penny's Hair Care, might just be the friendliest person in a town that's full of friendly people. She says hardly a day goes by when a motorist doesn't stop by to take a picture or a visitor comes in asking about the haircut she invented to honor the bird that put Brinkley on the map.

Ms. CHILDS: Well, it's got a little bit of white right in the front and then it makes a crest, which kind of tilts back. It's not exactly like a Mohawk, you know. It leans back because that's the way I've seen the ivory-billed, and that part's red. And then we go black and white on the sides that come around to a point in the back, so it copies the woodpecker.

ALLEN: So far Childs says she's given about 50 woodpecker haircuts, the most recent to a 70-year-old woman from Texas.

(Soundbite of cutting sheers)

ALLEN: All day long Childs talks to people as she cuts hair. She says the woodpecker has been good for Brinkley.

Ms. CHILDS: I'd say 98 percent of the people are very happy.

ALLEN: There are new people in town and new businesses to cater to them, most recently a new washateria. Just down Main Street from Penny's is a gift shop, The Ivory-Bill Nest. A six-foot-tall cutout of an ivory-billed woodpecker is perched on the outside corner of the building. It's the work of painter Rita Clemens. Clemens used to make her living doing duck paintings, which she says sold well, but then the woodpecker came along and she discovered birders.

Ms. RITA CLEMENS: This is an old rusty door that was actually going to be throwed away.

ALLEN: Clemens has turned the old door into a piece of Arkansas art. It's a winter scene, a snow-covered tree with birds perched on every branch.

Ms. CLEMENS: I kind of converted it into a screen and crackled it, made it look really, really nice, and I painted all the different Arkansas birds on it.

ALLEN: Well, and I guess that bird on the top is the ivory-billed.

Ms. CLEMENS: Oh, yeah. He's the ivory-billed. He's the main one right at the top.

(Soundbite of people talking and laughing)

ALLEN: If there's a headquarters for bird watchers in Brinkley, it might be here, at Gene's Barbecue. Inside the cedar paneling gives it a look of a hunting lodge, but now, along with the pictures of wild turkeys, there's a big poster at one end of the hall of the ivory-billed woodpecker. And along with duck hunters and locals, Gene's now has a new clientele, bird watchers.

Now I'm here with Gene DePriest. Had you ever heard of an ivory-billed woodpecker before last winter?

Mr. GENE DePRIEST: No, sir.

ALLEN: I noticed that you've actually got a sandwich on the menu now.

Mr. DePRIEST: Oh, I have an ivory-billed burger and a salad and a dessert, but it's really helped. I've had one group from the Arkansas Audubon Society stayed in town three days. They spent over $3,000 at my place.

ALLEN: For a bird that's hardly ever been seen, the ivory-billed woodpecker has sure cut a wide swath through Brinkley. Up to now the town, just 3,600 people 70 miles east of Little Rock, has been mostly known as a place for rice farming and duck hunting. Arkansas' Big Woods, more than a half million acres of bottomland forest, have long been prized by hunters. And it was here, just a few miles from Brinkley, where naturalists rediscovered the woodpecker. Although there's still been only one fleeting image of the woodpecker captured on videotape, scientists have gathered audio evidence of the birds calls and raps that they say confirms that at least one ivory-billed woodpecker, maybe more, is indeed alive and well in Arkansas.

When Sandra Kemmer of Brinkley's Chamber of Commerce first heard the news, she worried how would the small town handle thousands of visitors.

Ms. SANDRA KEMMER (Brinkley Chamber of Commerce): My concern was that, oh, my, we had 400 beds in the motels here and then one of my thoughts was, `Oh, will our infrastructure hold up to all of this, you know? What if they all turned their showers on at the same time or flushed the toilets at the same time? You know, can we handle it all?'

ALLEN: Although there's been a regular flow of visitors, so far the ivory-billed has not brought the deluge that was anticipated. Many in Brinkley believe that will change if there are more confirmed sightings and, even better, a close-up definitive photo of the bird.

But Kemmer says among Brinkley residents, there's no doubt that the woodpecker is real. Many say they, too, have seen it.

Ms. KEMMER: You know, the UPS guy saw it and didn't have his camera phone with him but he saw it. Well, there has been, I guess, three people that I know of that have seen it, you know, and one was an Arkansas Game & Fish person, too, you know.

ALLEN: There have been several confirmed expert sightings, but so far no other photos. But it's not for lack of trying. Dozens of scientists and hundreds of volunteers have descended on Brinkley with a single goal, to get a good look and hopefully another picture of the legendary bird. Since last year they've spent tens of thousands of hours on the search, using global positioning devices, automatic cameras and audio recorders.

(Soundbite of rustling)

ALLEN: Trudging through the leaves at the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area, Sam Stewart considers himself one of the luckiest birders in America. Stewart is a self-described bird bum from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, one of more than 100 volunteers who's spending a couple of weeks this winter in the woods near Brinkley, looking for the elusive woodpecker. Stewart says he typically spends most of his day perched in a bird blind, digital camera at the ready.

Mr. SAM STEWART: I mean, there's very little open space in between you and the next bank of trees, so that bird's going to come by within a couple seconds and be gone. And so we have our cameras in hand all day long and hope to be right on top of it when it comes up. Last night I was actually up on the platform, the sun was going down and out of the corner of my eyes I see this black and white thing streaking over top of the trees, just as they're supposed to, and I got on it with the camera so quick, my heart was pounding. But unfortunately it turned out to be a pileated woodpecker and it was very exciting.

ALLEN: Stewart says all the birders he knows want to come to Brinkley and the Big Woods in hopes that they'll catch a glimpse of the ivory-billed. The town of Brinkley is doing everything it can to capitalize on that excitement. A local hunting lodge is offering tours of the area where the bird was sighted, just $2,300 for a week in the woods. Brinkley's advertising and promotions director Patsy Arnett says the town has no problem marketing a bird that most visitors will likely never see.

Ms. PATSY ARNETT (Brinkley's Advertising and Promotions Director): I don't know that they will be disappointed if they come and do not see the ivory-billed. I mean, they're birders. They understand this. So, sure, we certainly hope there will be another sighting and the sooner, the better, but I believe they'll come no matter what, because they believe that it's here.

ALLEN: Plans are under way in Brinkley for an ivory-billed woodpecker celebration next February aimed at serious bird watchers. With any luck, scientists and city officials are hoping that by then they may have more concrete evidence that the ivory-billed is back. As one scientist said, `We have all the proof we need, but there's nothing wrong with an 8-by-10 glossy photo.'

Greg Allen, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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