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Posted on 2005.05.04 at 16:04

NYT, Published: May 3, 2005

Emily Dickinson was right: hope is the thing with feathers. What she didn't know was that it lives in an Arkansas swamp and has a big ivory bill.

On Thursday, the day that scientists announced the first confirmed sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker in 60 years, I went for a short paddle in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, where the bird was seen. I was with four other people, two from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which had made a major effort to confirm the sighting, and two from the Nature Conservancy, which has been buying land in the area. And I was trying to adjust to the good news.

In fact, I had always preferred Woody Allen's take on Dickinson's poem: "How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not the 'thing with feathers.' The thing with feathers has turned out be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich."

Furthermore, as a journalist, I'm not used to good news. There's just not that much of it. So the report that the ivory bill lived took me off guard. I got a bit overexcited and flew down to Little Rock from New York, drove out to Bayou de View in the refuge and got in a canoe.

On a slow bayou, the two canoes slipped through water tupelo and cypress, on slate-colored water, and I talked with Elliott Swarthout and Peter Wrege of the Cornell Lab about the off kilter beauty of swamps and the thing with feathers.

The common wisdom had been that the ivory bill was gone for good, not a bird anymore but a symbol, a reminder of loss. It once lived in southern swamps and bottom land and depended on large areas of old forest, since it needed dead trees for nesting and for feeding on grubs and beetles beneath the bark. Logging squeezed out the ivory bill, turning it into an accusatory ghost.

This was no subspecies of salamander threatened by a housing development. It was the biggest of its kind, something Americans always love. It had a 30-inch wingspan and a jackhammer beak. Audubon called it the "great chieftain of the woodpecker tribe" and others called it the Lord God bird because when people saw it, they said, "Lord God!" But it was gone, one of the natural treasures that a growing country stepped on and broke.

When I talked to experts during a hunt for the ivory bill in Louisiana three years ago, even some of the most dedicated searchers held out little chance of success. Outside the small circle of ivory bill seekers, the bird seemed a lost cause, a particularly sad lost cause for me because I have a soft spot for swampy places. Give me a dark slough over a sunlit meadow any day. Walking through the Louisiana bottom land was both exhilarating, because this part had been saved, and painful, because so much had been lost.

Tim Gallagher, who wrote "The Grail Bird" about the search and the sighting of the ivory bill, said that Bobby Harrison, his partner on the search, wept when he saw the bird fly in front of his canoe. I know of at least one person with no connection to the search who wept on reading the news, and I'm sure he was not alone.

Why was the discovery so powerful?

I think it is the reason for the bird's survival. It wasn't a miracle. It wasn't luck. And it wasn't simply the resilience of nature, although that helped. The reason for the astonishing re-emergence of a mysterious bird is as mundane as can be. It is habitat preservation, achieved by hard, tedious work, like lobbying, legislating and fund-raising.

There was luck involved, of course. But my favorite comment about luck was made by Branch Rickey, who said, "Luck is the residue of design." Chance favors the protected wetland.

Think about where the bird was found, in a national wildlife refuge, and in an area, the Big Woods of Arkansas, that conservation organizations and government agencies had targeted as crucial for preservation. Just south of the Cache River refuge is the White River National Wildlife Refuge. State refuges are nearby. And the Nature Conservancy has been buying up land in that area.

The same is true about other likely spots. The hunt in Louisiana was in the state's Pearl River Wildlife Management Area. When I talked to Scott Simon, the state director of the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, he said that Arkansas, a poor state, had voted for an eighth-of-a-cent sales tax for conservation, not a large amount, but a tax nonetheless.

I think the reason the discovery is so moving is that so many people worked so hard to save and protect land, telling themselves there may be an ivory bill out there, and that protecting the bottomland had to be important. I'm not sure they all believed it, but they acted as if they did.

As did the searchers. Mr. Swarthout showed me one spot on the bayou where observers on his team would sit in a canoe and wait and watch, for perhaps 10 or 12 hours. The refuge is a beautiful place, the bird is great, but sitting in a canoe for 12 hours has to be tedious and uncomfortable.

It is possible that this is the last ivory bill, that it won't appear again. And we have to trust the judgment and expertise of the scientists involved on the sighting because there is no crystal-clear photograph. Instead, there are detailed observations and an analysis of a blurry bit of videotape.

In most cases, I might hesitate to allow myself to join in the celebration. But I'm going with the experts in this case.

I am giving in to hope. Perhaps there are more ivory bills. I really hope so. The thing with feathers has got me in its grip.

And an editorial:

NYT, Published: May 3, 2005

I have a hard time imagining many people actually calling the ivory-billed woodpecker "the Lord God bird" - the name doesn't even make it onto the list of more than 20 common names recorded by the bird's intrepid chronicler, James T. Tanner, in 1942. But it makes a terrific headline for a bird reported last week to have been rediscovered after 61 years of official extinction (better than, say, "King woodchuck," one of its other nicknames). It somehow suggests that we have found more than just a missing bird and that God, whom we invoked when we conquered the wilderness, is also present in our effort to get it back.

"Second chances to save wildlife once thought to be extinct are rare," said Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton. Of course, chances to save birds not yet believed extinct are common, if sadly less appealing. But who doesn't love the idea of a second act, especially in America, where we are far more fixated on resurrection and new beginnings than on death and dying?

The searchers have given us back a magnificent creature. Some 20 inches long, boldly patterned with black and white, the bird is so beautiful that Audubon likened it to a Van Dyck painting. I may never see it - though I certainly hope to - but it has new life for me and will live for other people who may never have even heard of the bird. They will want to protect its habitat and in doing so will, without even knowing it, protect the habitat of many other animals as well. All this is a great gift. Likening the bird, as Audubon did, to a work of art while it still haunted the forests of the South is charming; imagining that the bird is nothing but a work of art is overwhelmingly depressing. As Goethe said, art is long and life is short.

The discovery certainly brings with it a measure of hope - for the bird, of course, but also for us. Though it is unclear if a breeding pair exists, we have suddenly been acquitted of murder, even if we still face a lesser charge of reckless endangerment for having logged the old-growth trees right out from under the bird. Before last week, the last official sighting of an ivory bill came in 1944 in an area near the Tensas River in Louisiana known as the Singer Tract because it was owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Despite protests from conservationists warning of the bird's extinction, the Singer Company leased the land to a logging company in 1938. At times using German P.O.W.'s for labor, the company went on to raze the forest.

All birds live between worlds, but the ivory-billed woodpecker is like Persephone in Greek mythology, the goddess who spent half her time in the underworld and half on earth. This is not even the first time the bird has come back from the grave. Never abundant, the ivory bill was considered gone for good as far back as the 1920's, when a nesting pair was found in Florida in 1924. That pair was shot and stuffed by hunters. In 1932 an ivory bill was shot in the Singer Tract, which led to the discovery of a tiny population that survived until 1944. The bird's disappearances gave it a ghostly life that it now carries with it back into the world.

To a bird watcher, every bird has a kind of double existence. It is the bird you struggle to see and identify and gather into the scientific world of Linnaean nomenclature; and it is the wild, mysterious creature that lives beyond our ability to ever name or truly know it. The trick with birding is to see both things at once - the bird in the guidebook and the bird that lives beyond books. To see the Van Dyck painting as a bird that is also, as its lowly Latin name Campephilus principalis tells us, "principally, an eater of grubs."

The ivory bill has a third identity as well, one that grows out of our need for the natural world to play a symbolic role in our lives. Tanner, in his study, observed that the most common explanation given for the bird's disappearance was that it "could not stand the presence of mankind or association with advancing civilization." In other words it was a lot like us as we sometimes idealized ourselves. Huckleberry Finn lights out for new territory because the Widow Douglas wants to adopt and "sivilize" him. The paradox is that the thing that seemed to link us to the wild world, our ferocious independence and unrestrained freedom, was the very impulse that endangered the wild places nourishing our national soul.

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