My Search For the Ivory Billed Woodpecker
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Hello, My name is Bill, I am a 46 year old naturalist in central Florida. My interest in the ivory billed woodpecker goes way back to the 1970's, I think I was 14 or 15 when my next door neighbor started telling me about it.
I've always been interested in wildlife, I was born in New Jersey and we lived in an urban area that didn't afford much opportunity for a young boy to see wildlife. In 1968 we moved to the great state of Florida and my earliest recollections were of being amazed at the anoles and tree frogs. When I was in the fifth grade we moved to a mostly undeveloped area of Daytona Beach, on the west side, near the speedway. Back then it was a mostly undeveloped area with old growth pine forests with islands of cypress growing in the swampy areas,,this extended west into what is now known as the Tiger Bay area, the water recharge area of east central florida. It has been confirmed that the Florida panther roams here, images caught on motion activated cameras.
Back then the only people that entered this area were hunters, fisherman, and kids like us who loved to get lost in the forest.
I knew nothing of woodpeckers, and I wouldn't have taken a second look at any, I was interested in odd things like armadillos and other small mammals.
This area is now highly developed, the land has been cleared for roads and support for traffic going to and from the racetrack. Daytona is no place for an ivory bill, as it has become mostly all over the state. To the west of Daytona lies the Tiger bay area and this wild place is roughly 150 square miles of woodlands and swamps,,,mostly unexplored.
I must have been 14 or 15 and I was in our back yard, my neighbor, a mostly frustrated housewife, was standing in the backyard smoking as usual and started talking about seeing this bird. She called it the ivory billed woodpecker. I had, at this point read about it in a book or something,,,because somehow I knew it was extinct,,,but I couldn't have told you any more about it.
I told her it was extinct and she stated that it wasn't and that it was often in the pine trees behind our house.
You see, we used to have these really bad forest fires in the woods adjacent to our home, and she said that it fed on the dead trees after the fires.
She then told me that there was a woodpecker that LOOKED like the ivory bill, it was smaller and it was called the "Pileated" woodpecker and was different.
I was enthralled by her story for about 5 minutes and went about my business.
As the days and months went by I would often start to think and dwell on this bird. It was then that I started looking up information on it,,,there was very little available. We didn't have computers and the internet back then, I had to use encyclopedias. I read that the bird was indeed extinct and that a man named James Tanner had really been the last to study them in the wild in the 1930's-40's.
I started to wonder though, how they came to the conclusion that it was extinct. Even as a teenager I realized how vast the forested area behind our neighborhood was, and my neighbor did say that she saw them. Did they have armys of researchers that combed the forests looking for them? And how many more forested areas were there in this state of ours that could hide these birds?
The story continues as I got older and could drive around the state I would often think of this bird. There were huge areas in the state that had forests and swamps,,how could the bird be gone? More importantly, how could anyone come to this conclusion?
In my late teens as I was thinking of going into the military I would quiz hunters and fisherman coming out of the wild areas about these birds. Many people told me they saw them. I didn't have the urge to go looking for them, I had no idea of the significance of finding them at this point,,it was just a puzzle that I tried to work out, "How could they know they were extinct"?
Many years later as I was able to travel around the country and the south I would see great forests and swamps around the south and invariably the bird would come to mind. But that was always it. I never really had the urge to go look for it,,,just the nagging question, "How do they know it is extinct?"
Jump to the late 1990's. I got a computer and now there is the world wide web! My mind was reeling,,there was so much information at my fingertips,,,,,so many people to communicate with. So much garbage! So many crazy people! Sifting through this can be a challenge, yet it can become an art form unto itself.
One day, I was sitting at the computer and this bird came to mind,,,I wondered what had become of the bird? I typed in "ivory billed woodpecker"  in a search engine and Mary Scott's site was right there,,
This to me was a fascinating site. On it, she had described her search in the Pearl River region of Louisiana after a man called David Kulivan had reported seeing a pair. Her searches seemed compelling, she ultimately reported seeing a possible ivory bill during her search and I went voila! I knew, I knew with a passion that all anyone really had to do was go out and LOOK, and eventually you could find one.
I started to try and find out how many people actually searched for these birds and very few people had actually ventured into the woods looking for them. And that nagging question came back, "How do they know they are extinct?"
I believed the Kulivan story, I believed Mary's story, and my research found that many people came forward with sightings that were immediately dismissed by the experts.
I read the new books, I read Tanner's book,,,,and none of the books answered my question, "How do they know they are extinct?"
It was at this point that I decided to find the bird. It was right around this point that the scholars announced that they had "rediscovered" the bird in Arkansas. It's such a self absorbed and loathesome word, "rediscovered". After all, many people had "rediscovered" the bird,,but because they lacked scholarly credentials they were dismissed.
So off I went, into the forests of florida,,,,and the following pages will describe what I have found. And what I have found will stir controversy, interest and no doubt some scholarly dismissals.
I hope you enjoy reading.
William Smith