Making Dollars and Sense in Ivory-Bill Country

While biologists figure out how to protect the ivory-billed woodpecker, local residents are turning the endangered bird into cash

  • Roger Di Silvestro
  • Apr 01, 2006

EASTERN ARKANSAS could teach pool tables a few things about being flat. Lying in the vast Mississippi River floodplain, the terrain on all sides stretches unimpeded to the most distant horizons. In such a level place, rivers find room to expand during flood season, enriching the soil and giving rise to bottomland-hardwood forests that, 200 years ago, covered 24 million acres of the Lower Mississippi River Valley. Today, after decades of drainage, dams and logging, only about 4.4 million acres of fragmented bottomland hardwoods remain. In Arkansas, a 90-mile stretch of such woodlands is protected in the 160,000-acre White River National Wildlife Refuge. Another 61,000 acres are sheltered in the nearby Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. Both are part of the southeastern Arkansas Big Woods, some 500,000 acres of state, federal and private bottomland-hardwood forest that provides the backdrop for what is arguably the conservation story of the past 100 years.

The Big Woods includes centuries-old cypress trees as well as towering sweet gum, hackberry and tupelo that provide the only known habitat of the ivory-billed woodpecker, thought extinct for decades until biologists made several sightings of the bird in 2004 along Bayou DeView, part of the Cache River refuge near Brinkley, Arkansas. Researchers kept the sightings secret for a year so they could search further for the woodpecker without triggering a birder stampede into the area. Word broke in the news media in early 2005.

The ivory-billed woodpecker is a fabled species, the largest U.S. woodpecker, as big as a crow. In the 19th century it haunted forested wetlands from Texas to Florida, from the Gulf Coast to the Carolinas. It required big, old trees, including dead and dying, on which it could drill through the bark to extract beetle larvae, its main food. Logging wiped out most of this habitat. The last ivory-bills of the 20th century were seen in the Singer Tract, a stand of ancient forest in northeast Louisiana. The tract was logged in the mid-1940s, and the bird was last seen in 1944. That sighting marked the end of the story for the ivory-billed woodpecker until the recent sightings, which have heightened interest in southeastern Arkansas woodlands and wetlands and turned the ivory-bill into a cottage industry. However, a major water diversion project threatens a large extent of the Big Woods as well as the myriad creatures that find habitat there, including 108 fish species and more than 260 bird species.

The ivory-bill would not have survived in Arkansas were it not for the work primarily of one man, Rex Hancock, a dentist from Stuttgart, Arkansas. In the 1970s, as an NWF board member and chairman of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation (AWF), he fought long and hard to save the woodpecker’s habitat along the Cache River, then an unprotected waterway that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) credited as the most important mallard wintering site in the United States. Hancock’s interest was not in providing habitat for the presumably extinct ivory-bill but in saving those ducks, which he hunted.

Local farmers wanted to drain the wetlands to make room for soybeans, a project that had been planned since the 1940s and that finally got rolling in the 1970s as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prepared to dredge 140 miles of the 232-mile Cache River. “Rex didn’t say no to the project, he said hell no,” recalls AWF president David Carruth. “He put so much of himself and his resources into the fight that he nearly went bankrupt.”

Hancock organized the Citizens Committee to Save the Cache River, which sank the project after the Corps had dredged 6 or 7 miles of the Cache. “The dredging came within 3 miles of where the ivory-bill was found on Bayou DeView,” Carruth says. “Without Hancock’s work, we would not now have the woodlands or the bird.” In 1986, while Hancock was dying of cancer, FWS began buying land for the newly authorized Cache River refuge, an unofficial monument to his work.

Times have changed in eastern Arkansas since Hancock’s day, Carruth says. In the 1970s, the farming industry backed the Corps push for the river project. Today, farmers are letting their crop fields revert to woods, having found that the land is more valuable for hunting and timber. “Conservation work has reversed a trend, so not only are they preserving the woods, they are expanding them,” he says.

Just how critical the Big Woods is to the bird and how the land should be managed to enhance its value to the ivory-bill remain unknown. Biologists are trying to determine the bird’s needs, a serious challenge because living ivory-bills have not been studied for more than half a century. According to Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology biologist Ken Rosenberg, speaking at an ivory-bill symposium that drew 150 participants to Brinkley last November, “We think we know the basic habitat requirements of the ivory-bill, at least in the Mississippi Delta bottomlands.” But, he explained, scientists still need to determine, among other things, how far the birds range, where they nest and how much dead wood they need for a sustainable population.

Better known are the threats that the birds and other Big Woods wildlife face. The Cache River dredging project has not been funded for a quarter century, but it is still a congressionally authorized project that could be revived. More immediately, the Corps has been pushing a major irrigation project, called Grand Prairie, that includes a 50-acre pumping station, located only 20 miles from the first ivory-bill sighting, that would draw 732,000 gallons a minute out of the White River. This extraction would likely change the character of 300 oxbow lakes and associated wetlands along the river and in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, but FWS has approved the project without ever initiating a comprehensive study of the project’s biological effects. “The combination of Corps recklessness and FWS indifference is a recipe for disaster for the ivory-bill,” says Terry Horton, AWF executive director.

AWF and NWF have been working in court to stop the project. “Without any new study the Corps decided that diverting this enormous amount of water from the wetland habitat that evidently shelters the ivory-bill won’t do any harm,” Carruth says. “FWS is content with letting them get away with it. We’re not.” The lawsuit seeks to stop work on the pump station until a comprehensive study is completed.

Another potential problem for the woodpecker came to light at the Brinkley symposium when an Arkansas game ranger told attendees that many local residents fear they will lose control use of their land to woodpecker management. If FWS suggests land regulation, he said, people will kill the birds. However, Jon Andrew, chief of the FWS Southeast Region, pointed out, “There are a lot of things you can do to protect the bird without taking people’s land away or their ability to work the land.” Carruth is confident that refuge personnel will work out details to everyone’s satisfaction. “The refuge has always bent over backward to get along with local landowners,” he says.

Private lands account for about 300,000 acres of the Big Woods, making them essential for ivory-bill protection. One biologist commented during the symposium that a good way to keep landowners happy is to make sure they understand that the woodpeckers can yield profits. “I know lots of people who’d pay $1,000 right now to see that bird,” he said.

Quite a few of Brinkley’s nearly 4,000 residents would agree, seeing the bird as a potential cash cow. One hallmark of this perspective is a huge, brightly colored billboard next to the town’s I-40 exit that features a Rodan-sized picture of the famous bird and reads: “Brinkley, Home of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.” Just off the exit, a neon hotel sign that must be 15 feet tall marks the Ivory-Billed Inn and features the bird in full color, about 200 times life size.

Down the road in Brinkley itself is Gene’s Restaurant, owned by Gene De Priest, who cooks up excellent barbecued and smoked meats as well as his famous (well, it was featured on 60 Minutes) ivory-billed woodpecker hamburger—two patties, mozzarella cheese, two strips of peppered bacon to stand in for the bird’s striped head and face, all on a sesame-seed bun. Diners can precede it with an ivory-bill salad and chase it with an ivory-bill dessert—a brownie with whipped cream and a cherry (that would be the male bird’s red topknot). For Brinkley, De Priest says, the woodpecker has been a boon. The 110 people who attended an Audubon function there and the 150 people who came for the woodpecker symposium kept seasonal restaurant and hotel staff employed past the busy season.

Penny Childs, who runs a hair salon down the road from Gene’s, agrees. When she heard De Priest had come up with a woodpecker burger, she came up with an ivory-billed woodpecker hair style, which involves coloring hair—or even a bald pate—to look like an ivory-bill’s head. She helped raise funds for a local church youth program by offering the style for a donation. “The woodpecker has helped everybody,” she says.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Nest is the only business in town based exclusively on the bird. Owned by Lisa Boyd, the store features a variety of T-shirts, sweatshirts, buttons, artwork, books, key chains and myriad other items that feature the bird. Boyd, who manages 28 rental properties in Brinkley, turned one of them into this shop on Main Street, figuring that souvenirs might turn a more stable profit than rent.

At the moment, Brinkley has a corner on the ivory-bill market, but that may not last for long. Now that the bird has been spotted with scientific certainty in Arkansas, biologists are taking a closer look at reports from other areas—from Texas to Florida—where rumors persist about the bird’s survival. Jerome Jackson, a woodpecker expert at Florida Gulf Coast University, told the ivory-bill symposium that he had recent reports of the woodpeckers in Florida that he could not discount.

Meanwhile, the search for ivory-bills near Bayou DeView continues, and biologists hope to find a nesting pair in spring. The woodpecker’s future at the moment is vague at best, and almost anyone can read something significant into a comment made at the Brinkley symposium by Gene Sparling, the first man to spot an ivory-billed woodpecker in 2004: “Something big could be coming down soon.”

Roger Di Silvestro is a National Wildlife senior editor.

Protecting Ivory-Bill Woodpecker Habitat

Southeastern Arkansas’s Cache River and White River wetlands lie in the Lower Mississippi River Basin, where agriculture, barge shipping and flood control have reduced 24 million acres of forest and wetland to about 4.4 million. NWF and its affiliates, the Arkansas and Mississippi Wildlife Federations, are working to stop further threats to this area, including the:

White River Navigation Project, which would widen and deepen the river for dubious navigation benefits at the expense of valuable habitat, including ivory-bill habitat and parts of two national wildlife refuges;
Yazoo Backwater Area Reformulation Project, which would drain an ecologically rich area, jeopardizing as much as 200,000 acres of wetlands to reduce seasonal flooding on marginal farmland; and
Big Sunflower Dredging Project, which would dredge 100 miles of Mississippi’s Big Sunflower River to reduce seasonal flooding of marginal farmland, destroying one of the Mississippi Delta’s last great natural areas.
NWF and its state affiliates also promote better land and water use by helping landowners to access state and federal conservation-incentive programs. For more information, go to

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A Fabled First Sighting

 The ivory-billed woodpecker—largest U.S. woodpecker species, matching the common crow in size—once ranged forested wetlands from Texas to Florida, from the Gulf Coast to the Carolinas. Logging wiped out most of this habitat, apparently putting the kibosh to the bird, although uncontrolled hunting probably played an important role in its decline, too. The last ivory-bills of the 20th century were seen in the Singer Tract, a stand of ancient forest in northeast Louisiana logged in the mid-1940s. But biologists and woodpecker enthusiasts have long hoped that the ivory-bill, a secretive creature living in wetlands difficult for humans to travel, might still survive. It seems they were right—a year ago biologists reported recent sightings near the town of Brinkley in southeastern Arkansas, where a combination of well-protected ancient woodlands and wetlands seem to have preserved the bird.

The first sighting came on February 11, 2004, in the form of a lone bird that flashed past a kayak in Bayou DeView and was spotted by Gene Sparling, a lean, light-haired man with a close-cropped beard and baritone voice. “I had just set my paddle down and leaned back in my kayak and had a sensation of being the luckiest man on the planet just to be there,” he says, there being a swamp shaded by the closed canopy of 300-year-old trees. Then he saw the bird. “My God,” he thought, “that’s the biggest pileated woodpecker I’ve ever seen.” The bird perched on a tree 60 feet away, fulfilling a dream Sparling had harbored since childhood—to be the guy who rediscovered the ivory-bill. “I knew immediately this was not a pileated woodpecker, and if it wasn’t a pileated woodpecker there was only one other thing it could be, an ivory-bill, but I also knew they were extinct.” From Sparling the word spread via the internet to woodpecker experts who, on February 27, saw one of the birds close up as it moved from tree to tree in the same area. A year later, they announced the woodpecker’s survival in an article in Science, a peer-reviewed journal.

The bird has created woodpecker mania in Brinkley, where many of the town’s nearly 4,000 residents see the ivory-bill as a potential cash cow.—Roger Di Silvestro

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Still on the Lookout  

Randall Dettmers, biologist in charge of land bird conservation for the northeastern region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, recently had a rare opportunity to search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, a species long thought extinct that was rediscovered in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas in 2004.

Ornithologist Dettmers was invited to participate in the search, which took place in late February and early March of this year, by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Lab is leading the search efforts on behalf of a coalition of federal, state and private conservation agencies responding to the first sighting in 60 years of the largest woodpecker in North America. Dettmers spent 11 days in the Arkansas swampland where the woodpecker was seen and videotaped two years ago. Here is his story:

NW: What kind of habitat were you searching in? How did it look, feel, smell and sound?

Dettmers: I had the feeling I was in a mature, dense, hardwood forest, some of it in water. Some of the trees were old growth with trunks that were 5 to 6 feet in diameter. The swamp smelled of decayed matter due to being flooded much of the year. And there were bird noises everywhere, all day long, including various species of woodpeckers calling much of the time.

NW: Did you use any special equipment to search for the woodpecker?

Dettmers: No special equipment to detect the bird, but we had video and digital cameras to capture the bird’s image if we had come across it. We also had GPSs to mark spots where we found suspicious activity or signs, such as large tree cavities or freshly scaled bark indicative of ivory-bill foraging.

NW: Did you see or hear anything that resembled the ivory-bill?

Dettmers: Though we saw many pileated woodpeckers every day—and each gave us a shot of adrenalin until we were sure they were not ivory-bills—we did not see nor hear anything that might have been an ivory-billed woodpecker.

NW: Have there been any sightings of the ivory-billed since the sightings two years ago?

Dettmers: Cornell Lab reports that there have been six “possible encounters” since this season’s search efforts began in November and a total of about 15 in the last two years. None have been confirmed. In order to confirm a sighting, a photograph or videotape must show that the bird is unquestionably an ivory-billed woodpecker.

NW: What is the attitude of those in charge concerning the existence of the ivory-billed and the chances of ever seeing it again?

Dettmers: There is a hopeful, positive attitude about seeing this woodpecker again. They plan to continue the search on a daily basis this spring through most of the breeding season, and then resume it next fall after the leaves are off the trees.

NW: How did you feel about searching for the world’s rarest bird?

Dettmers: It was a great honor, a special privilege to be part of the search. I was very excited, because it isn’t everyday you get a chance to look for such a rare bird.

NW: Do you have plans to go back to Arkansas to search again for the bird?

Dettmers: I don’t have plans at this point, but if they need help next fall or next spring, I certainly would like to be there.
—George H. Harrison

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