16 October 2014

The big news in the bird world is, of course, the confirmed sighting of one of America's most fabled birds, the ivory-billed woodpecker, in southeastern Arkansas. The last official sighting date -- and I stress "official" -- in the United States was back in 1944. Other than that, the stylish creature, with its black body, white wingtips, ivory bill and crown of red feathers, lived on mostly in endless reproductions of Audubon's print.

Reading most news stories, you'd think that Big Woody's first convincingly reported sighting in 60 years came on Feb. 11, 2004, when Gene Sparling, on a canoeing trip in his kayak, reported he'd seen the ivory-billed woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, in southeastern Arkansas.

Not so, as was made clear in an excellent story by Bob Marshall, outdoors editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and published April 29, the day after official announcement of the ivory-bill's renaissance. In fact, there had been several credible sightings of the prudent ivory-bill since 1944.

In the mid-Sixties, there two separate reports from experienced birders that the ivory-bill had been seen in the Big Thicket area of East Texas. Then, in 1999, a forestry student from Louisiana State University, David Kulivan from Terry Town, across the Mississippi from New Orleans, went turkey hunting in Louisiana's Pearl River Basin. He saw the ivory-billed woodpecker, and his report provoked large-scale efforts to ratify his sighting.

Among those who believed Kulivan was Van Remsen, curator of birds at LSU's natural science museum. He knew that Kulivan had been in the swamp, not on the edge of the forest, like most birders. "That's one reason I found David Kulivan credible. He was hunting turkeys deep in a swamp, far away from the spots birders normally go. That's why I helped organize that search."

Then, in 2004, Gene Sparling went canoeing in the Cache River Refuge in southern-eastern Arkansas and saw a large woodpecker fly toward him and land in a tree nearby. Two weeks later, Tim Gallagher of Living Bird magazine and Bobby Harrison, an associate professor at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., went back to the Cache River Refuge and espied the ivory-bill.

As the Times-Picayune's Marshall writes it, Gallagher told him, "Bobby sat down on a log, put his face in his hands and began to sob, saying, 'I saw an ivory-bill. I saw an ivory-bill.'"

Now, why has Kulivan disappeared from the official story? First of all, young Kulivan was hunting, gun in hand, and thus does not belong in any official environmentalist narrative, as the story will be promulgated down the years as a fundraiser for the big environmental groups. Secondly, these days, David Kulivan works in Washington, D.C., as youth programs coordinator for the National Rifle Association. He pronounces himself delighted that his sighting has been confirmed and told the Times Picayune, "I don't feel any personal vindication because I don't have any need for that. What I'm thinking is that this is a powerful statement about the resilience of nature."

That kind of talk would never fly at the big environmental groups, whose fundraising thrives on prospective extinction, not on nature bouncing back.

Incidentally, Kulivan added that part of the lesson has been to "underscore the importance of conserving bottomland hardwoods." The reason why the fortunes of the ivory-billed woodpecker plummeted down the centuries since the white settlers came to the bottomland forests of the lower Mississippi was military boondoggling.

As "Birds of North America" puts it, "During World War I, Northern industries were getting the bulk of money spent for the war effort, and Southern politicians demanded their share. A bill was passed to build 1,000 ships of southern pine, sounding the death knell for remaining virgin pine forests. It was considered patriotic to cut the forests, although only 320 ships were ever built, and none saw war action. World War II was the final blow."

Most likely, eco-tourism will drive Big Woody out of southeast Arkansas. It was for this reason that one seasoned birder, Mary Scott, kept quiet about her convincing sighting of a male ivory-bill, in the spring of 2003. She stopped lecturing about her search for Big Woody and closed down her web diary on the topic.

As she writes on her site this week, "It was immediately obvious to me that I could only diminish the future hopes for the ivory-billed woodpecker by making my sighting public." She reported her sighting to local wildlife officials and the Cornell Ornithology lab and then kept her mouth shut.

God help Big Woody now. Mind you, there have been credible sightings of the ivory-bills in Cuba in the 1980s and the early 1990s, but those are Commie woodpeckers, and we don't count them.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.