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The news, which came to me in a cryptic telephone call one day this past February, was electrifying: the ivory-billed woodpecker, mourned as extinct for more than 60 years, had been found in the swamp forests of eastern Arkansas. I was being asked to accompany a search party that was conducting its work in extraordinary secrecy. For long moments, I forgot to breathe; for the next two nights, the excitement and awe kept me wide awake.
Any birder would have been thrilled, but I've long had a special interest in "ghost species," creatures of such surpassing rarity that we cannot say whether they are alive or extinct. I've chased the fading trail of these almost mythical animals from the mountains of Tasmania to the jungles of Brazil. Still, the ivory-bill had always exerted the strongest pull--and engendered the greatest heartache.
We who love wild America, who feel a personal grief over the spectacles we'll never see--prairies awash with millions of bison, flocks of passenger pigeons whose wings roared like hurricanes, the green-and-yellow shock of Carolina parakeets whirling through an Illinois woodland--had always counted the ivory-bill as one of the heaviest losses. Never merely a bird, the great woodpecker, with its black-and-white wings and the male's scarlet crest, was an icon of the immense swamp forest wilderness that stretched from Nashville to New Orleans, east to Florida, and up to the Carolinas. One folk name for the animal was the "Lord God" bird, because, the story goes, a person seeing an ivory-bill fly by on its two-and-a-half-foot wingspan often gasped, "Lord God, what a bird!"
The ivory-bill's forest habitat fell under the blades of loggers almost from the earliest days of colonization, but the timbering reached a frenzy from the late 1880s until World War II. The bird became synonymous with extinction, a haunting reminder of what a culture may lose when it squanders its natural wealth. Like a dying flame, …