The Ghost Bird

It lives! say experienced observers, who claim seven convincing sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker since 2004 in Arkansas. Even as new reports turn up, skeptics doubt that the legendary Lord God Bird has managed to elude extinction since the last confirmed U.S. sighting in 1944.

I can testify that at 7:30 a.m. on March 16, 2006, there was no ivory-billed woodpecker at latitude 34°6 ́48 ̋, longitude 91° 7 ́43 ̋, deep in the spring-greening woods of Arkansas’s White River National Wildlife Refuge. A straightforward enough observation, you might think—but you’d be wrong. When it comes to the Lord God Bird, even the simplest statement invites equivocation and argument.

I was one of about 50 people participating in a “saturation search” of an area where biologists from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (CLO) thought an ivorybill might be present. As I sat quietly on a log with my binoculars and camera ready, listening to morning birdsong, I knew some would say that the entire effort was futile and even nonsensical—that the reason neither I nor anyone else would see an ivorybill was that the last one in the U.S. died a lonely death decades ago, leaving only sad, dried, eye- less skins resting in the ornithological morgues of museum trays.

The ivorybill faithful, on the other hand, have another explanation. They say the bird, in its 21st- century incarnation, has been transformed into a creature as shy as Bambi, as silent as a Trappist monk, as anxious to avoid photographers as a Mafia stool pigeon in a witness-protection program—altogether as invisible to the human senses as a stealth fighter is to radar.

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