My Search For the Ivory Billed Woodpecker
How Do They Know They Are Extinct?

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As far as I know the bird has never been listed as "offically" extinct. I believe that as far as the ivory bill is concerned, it is listed as an endangered species which affords it all of the protection that it requires, at least the minimum legally required protection. This means that the habitat that it exists in is also protected, much the same way the habitat of any federally endangered species is. Ambiguity is the best way to describe it,,,because the amount of habitat protection any species gets is different depending on the species and how much noise is made and who makes that noise.
Here locally in Florida I have seen the whole development of sub-divisions (housing) halted based on the existence of one species of scrub plant. Ironically there have been countless projects done with little or no regard for the species inhabiting that given area, mostly because the right person or groups have not spoken out to protect them. We as humans are very hypocritical in our sanctimoniety, myself included.
The bird is spoken of as extinct, probably extinct, and now since the "rediscovery" in Arkansas it is no longer extinct.
But before the Arkansas bird was "rediscovered' how did anyone come to the conclusion that it was extinct?
Very simply, close mindedness, egotistical superiority complexes, and laziness.
When the Singer tract in Louisiana was finally mowed down it was accepted that the bird was gone. Just like that. The birds somehow flew away and just died. No one found dead birds,,they were dead.
All of this assumption was based on the fact that Tanner had only found the birds there,,,he had speculated that there were populations in South Carolina, Florida, possibly even Georgia. He spent a few years supposedly searching for them, but in reality he merely spent time going to various areas quizzing the natives, and then comparing habitat to the Singer tract. He did, in his work, "The Ivory Billed Woodpecker", admit that he didn't know how many birds there were and did in fact speculate that there were populations in other areas,,but,,once the Singer tract was mowed down the birds became "extinct".
Any rational person would think carefully and realize that this wasn't nescessarily the case. It is true, that other suitable habitats were being cut and destroyed, for years after the Singer tract was gone. Even today areas are being cut. However, many suitable habitats remained and do remain today.
I just could not believe that the birds would not survive. They are birds, they have great flying capabilities and the whole south was not mowed and transformed into soybean fields. They had to go somewhere. They wouldn't just fly into the air and flap until they died.
The birds were never searched for in any concentrated way, and certainly when people came forward with "sightings" they were dismissed as pileateds or worse, people just lying.
John Dennis was dismissed as well, he saw the bird in texas, and Tanner himself was guilty of the dismissal, in his words, "Dennis wants to believe he saw something, but he didn't."
How completely egotistical is that? To simply dismiss even an  experienced birder like Dennis who had indeed documented the bird in Cuba and has taken the last scientifically accepted photo of the bird. And yet Tanner himself would dismiss his Texas sighting.
And so the trend has been for years. In 1971 George Lowery presented two photographs of a male ivory billed woodpecker that were taken in the swampy areas of Louisiana to the AOU meeting. They were scoffed at and ridiculed by his peers. He was laughed at and why? Egos.
Reports of the birds and fleeting glimpses by grad students and pseudo researchers would continue for years, and continue today. But the response is always the same. Ridicule.
No one has taken the time to go into the woods and really look for the bird.
People, hunters and fisherman, boaters and such have come forward with stories of the bird, but because they are not qualified observers they are not believed.
Critics have contended that the bird could not possibly have stayed hidden for 60 plus years. This is my point. They have not stayed hidden for 60 plus years, it is that no one has listened.
People, skeptics, have asked, why no photographs? Go out in the woods, follow a hunter,,go on the water and see watercraft users,,,fisherman,,,how many are doing what they do and have a camera in their hand facing up? More often than not the bird will fly in, scamper up a tree and make it's way in a different direction. Sightings last a few seconds and most "laypeople" aren't in the woods to take a professional photograph of the bird. They observe it with awe. They see it, they tell people about it, but when it falls on ears of someone who should care then it is dismissed as silliness.
Enter David Kulivan. The story goes that in 1999 David Kulivan was turkey hunting in the Pearl River region of Louisiana. He was just sitting there in his camos, waiting. He had a camera, it was in his backpack. The camera was in there so he could take pictures of his turkey that he hoped to shoot. As he was sitting there the birds made their appearance. He was at the time an undergraduate student at LSU. It was april 1st, april fool's day. David Kulivan stated that he had an extended look at a pair of birds very close to him, he was able to observe all of the markings, he even heard some vocalizations. He did not go for his camera,,he was afraid his movements would scare off the birds. He was reluctant to tell anyone, he did not report it on april fool's day, in my mind this is reason enough to believe it wasn't an april fool's day joke. He didn't report it for nearly two weeks in fact. And he reported it to the very people who were famous for dismissing reports. And they believed him. It must have been a very reliable sighting, or he must be a very charismatic witness, for what made them listen to him as opposed to other people is beyond me. But they believed. and searches ensued.
Many people have searched the Pearl River area since. And there are no photographs, and there are no sound recordings of vocalizations.
There are records of searches and even of glimpses of the bird but no pictures. I am not surprised. Zeiss Optics sponsored the last really big search, 30 or so people combing the region, a couple of tantalizing glimses of birds flying away, a sound recording of gunshots that were for awhile believed to be the douple raps of Campehilus. But no proof. People, listen. This is no way to find a bird. 30 people stomping through brush, bramble, swamp,,making so much noise. All the birds need to do is fly ahead and out of the way 30 yards or so and no one is going to see them. Fly ahead and circle back and voila,,no bird.
Mary Scott saw the bird. She was alone. She was part of a search team, they had not found anything and after a brief rain she noticed the ground didn't make noise, she was quiet and alone and there was the bird. Briefly she saw it flying. And this is how you see birds. To go into their habitat, stealthily, quietly, and observe. You do not stomp through palmettos and bramble, cutting your way through. You walk in an accessible area, quietly,,observing. You will see it.
I recently used an analogy that demonstrates this. We live on a clay road in a rural area of Florida. We have alot of wildlife in the area. I asked my daughter, "How many times do we see racoons on the road?" She answered, "Once or twice a month maybe." A little generous of an assesment but she is right. I ask her, "How many times do we drive on our road in a day?" She answers, "4, maybe 6 times a day." I say, "Right, and if we only drove on this road 6 maybe 8 times in a year, how many racoons would we see?" She is puzzled and thinks, and she realizes that probably none. And this is how it is with the ivory billed woodpecker. Go into the habitat once, or twice. Once, maybe twice or even three times a year. How many will you see? Go once or twice a week and your odds get better, don't you think?
David Kulivan's observation, if true, is very important. It demonstrates a few very important points. Here is a fellow, he is in the woods, sitting there. He sees this awesome sight. He is familiar with birds, he is an educated and knowledgeable person. He is sitting there,,,not walking, just sitting. More importantly to note,,,he did not come rushing out of the woods telling people in fact about his sighting. He sat on it. It was only after a few weeks that he came forward to the scholars that he was aquainted with and told his story. His story came a hair's width from never being told.
How many other hunters have been in a deer stand? How many have been sitting there and saw something?
How many of them have LSU professors that they can go to and speak to about their sighting? How many called Van Remson's office and said they saw the bird? A few anyway, and they were told to get a picture.
Kulivan's hesitancy is important because it shows why there isn't a flood of people coming forward with their sightings, and more importantly it shows why there aren't people coming forward with pictures.
David Kulivan, undergraduate student, educated, level headed, armed with a 35mm camera and yet he did not get a picture. Why would anyone else?
I believe David Kulivan and I do not blame him for not speaking anymore about the birds.
William Smith
November 22, 2005

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