13 Ways of Looking at an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
By JACK HITT, The New York Times, May 7, 2006
If I wanted to, I could claim something that fewer than two dozen people on the planet right now can: I have seen an ivory-billed woodpecker. It was only a year ago that history was made when it was announced that this legendary woodpecker — also known as the Lord God Bird for the excited cry said to accompany a sighting — was not extinct, as had been widely believed, but had been positively identified in a swamp called the Bayou de View in Arkansas. On Feb. 26, I visited the bayou with Bill Tippit, a friendly bear of a birder. We were expecting to spend the day in the swamp with an expert guide, but in the chime of a cellphone, we found ourselves suddenly guideless, standing there with our waders, a canoe and a big desire. "I'm game," he said in his slow, deep twang. So we put in and spent the day drifting around the primeval beauty of Arkansas's most famous bottom-land swamp.
Even though I grew up among South Carolina's cypress swamps, I had never seen cypress trees this huge and haunting. Towering beside them was the ancient tupelo, like some Devonian Period beta version of "tree." These thousand-year-old senator trees are large enough at the base to garage a car, and then they suddenly narrow like a wine bottle before shooting up into a regular tree. Tippit and I spent the day paddling into swampy cul-de-sacs and just hanging there, strictly quiet, for half an hour at a stretch.
"You can't find the bird," Tippit said. "The bird has to find you." By late afternoon, the swamp had come to life with a dozen birdsongs. Blue herons flapped through the trees, while above, the canopy was a rush hour of swallows and sweeps. At times, the dimming forest could be as chatty as a crowded cocktail party, filled with the call of the pileated woodpecker. A relative of the ivory-bill, the pileated is common and often mistaken — very often — for its more renowned cousin.
Then: "Ivory-bill!" Tippit urgently whispered from the back of the canoe. I looked ahead but saw nothing. I turned to see precisely where he was pointing. I whipped back around to see the final movements of a large dark bird disappearing like a black arrow into the dusky chill of the swamp.
I knew the drill. To confirm the sighting, I asked Tippit to report to me precisely what he saw. As with any witness, it's important to set the interview down on paper as soon as possible. Tippit called out: "Two white panels on the back of the wings! It lit on that tree. It was large. Also saw it flying away from me with flashes of white."
Since that February afternoon, I have been able to say, "I saw an ivory-billed woodpecker," yet I have not said it. It turns out it's not an easy sentence to utter, and not only because all I really saw was a distant flash of black feathers. I got a better sense of the difficulty of this claim when I attended the Call of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Celebration in February in nearby Brinkley (formerly Lick Skillet), Ark. The town had so gussied itself up in midwinter woodpecker boosterism that I fully expected to see a parade led by Robert Preston sporting an ivory-bill haircut (available at Penny's Hair Care for $25). A modest motel is now the Ivory Billed Inn. Gene's Restaurant and Barbecue offers an ivory-bill cheeseburger. There's even ivory-bill blue: I bought a T-shirt that reads, "Got Pecker?" And yet talk of seeing the bird was curiously absent. It's hard to describe, but it's like saying you've walked on the moon or been anointed by the Dalai Lama. It's a boast of immense magnitude, frightening to claim, and here's why: In the weeks after the initial sighting, Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology flew down dozens of scientists to comb the swamp, and the Nature Conservancy intensified its efforts to secure large swaths of the habitat. Even the Department of the Interior got involved. The gravitas of powerful institutions and eminent professionals now looms over every claim.
During the question-and-answer period after a talk given by Sharon Stiteler, a perky, witty, smiling blonde who is the host of www.birdchick.com, I cut off a back-and-forth about bird feeders to ask her, "Have you seen an ivory-billed woodpecker?" It was as if I'd dropped a glass on the floor. The room went weirdly silent. The smile on Stiteler's face flickered away quick as a chickadee. "I am not allowed to comment on that," she said. "I was out with Cornell in December and had to sign a lot of confidentiality agreements."
Soon after the original declaration of the discovery was made last April, controversy broke out, and it quickly got nasty. The ugliness derives from something deep in the heart of birding. Most people think of birding as either a science worthy of a word like "ornithology" or a harmless hobby pursued by rubber-faced old men in porkpie hats. But the act of birding, ultimately, is an act of storytelling. For instance, if someone said to you, "I saw this cardinal fly out of nowhere with yellow tips on its wings and land on the side of a tree," even the least experienced amateur would counter that cardinals don't have yellow wingtips and don't cling to trees but rather perch on branches. Each bird is a tiny protagonist in a tale of natural history, the story of a niche told in a vivid language of color, wing shape, body design, habitat, bill size, movement, flying style and perching habits. The more you know about each individual bird, the better you are at telling this tale.
Claiming to have seen rare birds requires a more delicate form of storytelling and implies a connoisseur's depth of knowledge. Saying "I saw an ivory-bill's long black neck and white trailing feathers" requires roughly the same panache as tasting an ancient Bordeaux and discoursing on its notes of nougat and hints of barnyard hay.
If you don't pull it off, then people presume that you are lying or stupid. And this is where birding gets personal. Telling a rare-bird-sighting story is to ask people to honor your ability as a birder — to trust you, to believe you. To say I saw an ivory-bill — and Tippit says we did — would put me in one camp; on the other hand, to say that I'm not sure totally disses my canoe partner's integrity. And I came to like and trust Bill Tippit quite a lot. He pointed out about a dozen birds to me that afternoon that I never would have seen without his keen eye. I don't want to deny him. So I cagily keep myself suspended between two potential truths, which is where a lot of birders now find themselves.
The ivory-billed woodpecker is, essentially, Schrödinger's cat, the famous physics paradox in which a cat in a box is neither dead nor alive until you open the box. By keeping my mouth shut (about as rare an experience as an ivory-bill sighting), the bird is both extinct from the planet and nesting in the swamps of Arkansas.
But this is not one of those crummy stories that ends with some annoying riff about "ambiguity." Birding is not philosophy. Birding is storytelling, and ivory-bill birding is the most exquisitely nuanced yarn of them all. It requires that you consider the different facets of the ivory-billed woodpecker from every angle. (My experience with Bill Tippit and this philosophical mumbo jumbo are but two.) There are, with some editing, 13 ways of looking at the ivory-billed woodpecker, and there is an answer to the burning question Did I see the damn bird or not? Here's the thing — I'm not able to give the answer. It's a birding story. Only you can.
The fantastic story of the bird's rediscovery begins with the first confirmed sighting. Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine, published by Cornell University's ornithology lab, was writing a book, "The Grail Bird," a history of the search for the ivory-bill. He intended to interview every living person who had seen one. It turns out that there's a whole subcategory of bird aficionados known as ghost-bird chasers, who look for birds presumed to be extinct. Gallagher himself was one, and over his years of searching, he met Bobby Harrison, a photography professor at Oakwood College in Alabama, who was also in this game.
The two men were made for the Chautauqua circuit, which they're now in fact on, sometimes together, sometimes solo, telling the tale of their sighting. Their appearance before an awestruck audience capped the Brinkley celebration. Gallagher is a tall 55-year-old with white hair and a pleasantly restrained Yankee demeanor who introduced himself in Arkansas by confessing amiably that he'd always thought the South was weird and that he considered Harrison his "interpreter and guide." Harrison, a fun guy with a head like a mortar shell, had his own schtick, like saying that he didn't know "damn Yankee" was two words until he was 20 years old. The audience laughed wildly at their tale, which was, like the best sightings, a great adventure story full of snakes, mayhem, missteps, mud, bugs and a bird.
In early 2004, Gallagher was alerted to an online posting by another Southerner, a kayaker named Gene Sparling, who reported that he'd seen an unusual woodpecker in the Bayou de View. Gallagher and Harrison each interviewed him and were convinced. They rushed to Arkansas and put in. The second day they were there — Feb. 27, 2004 — the two saw something burst into the sunshine. "Look at all the white on its wings," Gallagher shouted. "Ivory-bill!" they both screamed. And it was gone. They wrote down their notes and drew sketches. Gallagher had a new ending for his book. Bobby got on the phone to his wife, Norma, and sobbed.
Back at Cornell, Gallagher told John Fitzpatrick, the head of the school's lab of ornithology, and Fitzpatrick was persuaded by Gallagher's description. After quietly deploying a few pros (and then a lot of them) to poke around Arkansas, Fitzpatrick decided to throw the lab's prestige and best resources into the search. Meanwhile, Gene Sparling, the kayaker, had contacted the Nature Conservancy, the environmental group best known for buying undeveloped land. According to Scott Simon, the conservancy's state director, the group had helped save some 120,000 acres of this part of Arkansas, known as the Big Woods, a good bit of the habitat where the bird might be.
"A few days after Feb. 27, Fitzpatrick called me," Simon told me, "and we danced around trying to find out what the other knew." When they discovered that they knew the same thing, Simon became a partner and agreed to supply aerial photographs.
"Fitz emphasized the need to keep it quiet," Simon went on to tell me. "They wanted to get in one full year of research uninterrupted and focused. For 14 months we did that. We called it the Inventory Project, and we talked about it in code." Eventually, when all the necessary groups were brought in, the Inventory Project had a 16-person management board. "And it was really fun," Simon said. "These people met on a conference call every Tuesday night at 8:30 p.m., Central Time." The ivory-bill was now the subject of the greatest supersecret mission in the history of ornithology.
Cornell's swamp operation moved swiftly into place in Arkansas in the spring of 2004, and it is still there today. "We have 36 people on the ground at any one time," the field supervisor, Elliott Swarthout, told me. "Twenty-two are paid staff; 14 are volunteers." There are 28 Autonomous Recording Units, or A.R.U.'s, stationed at strategic flyways in the swamp. Hundreds of hours of audio recordings are routinely flown back to Cornell, where they are computer-searched for the patterns of the ivory-bill's two most famous sounds. There is the "kent" call, a funny bweep that sounds like a kid's toy horn. And there is the double knock — two heavy bill blows into a tree, so close together they almost register as one sound.
Scattered throughout the forest, time-lapse cameras are mounted on trees. The ornithologists have also drawn up grids and transepts and are systematically moving through the area with human eyes to conduct regular bird counts and spot roost holes. They have flown as many as four ultralight aircraft low over the swamp canopy to flush out ivory-bills. By the end of the first year of searching, Cornell had registered seven brief sightings of the bird.
In April 2004, a compelling piece of evidence came in. A computer scientist named David Luneau was videotaping in the swamp when his camera, fixed in the canoe and focused on his colleague, captured a large black-and-white woodpecker in the background. The woodpecker was half-hidden by a tree and was startled before making an out-of-focus escape into the swamp. The tape lasts four seconds. Fitzpatrick and 16 colleagues slowed down the tape and concluded that the fuzzy white patches appeared in the right places.
Fitzpatrick waited a full year, studying the habitat, before taking the discovery public. On April 28, 2005, the peer-reviewed 17-author paper was published with much fanfare by Science magazine on its Science Express Web site. Cornell and the Nature Conservancy launched www.ivory-bill.com and provided the media with easily downloaded images. The lab's marketing department fired off electronic press releases to 1,000 members of the media. Cornell's press office beefed up its presence in Washington and assisted in the media rollout of news items: 43 radio shows, 174 television programs and 459 newspaper articles. Overnight, the ivory-billed woodpecker became a generally accepted scientific fact.
But not for long. Within weeks, both professional ornithologists and amateur birders were starting to have doubts. Four world-class bird specialists, led by Richard Prum of Yale University (who is a neighbor of mine) and including a renowned ivory-bill expert named Jerome Jackson, prepared a peer-reviewed paper, arguing that the Science magazine material did not rise to the standard of scientific evidence. It was a heavy charge.
But then last summer, as the authors prepared for publication, Cornell sent them some fresh and exciting evidence: recordings of kent calls and double knocks. Prum was temporarily won over, publicly stating that the "thrilling new sound recordings provide clear and convincing evidence that the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct." The authors pulled their paper.
But as the months passed and no new evidence materialized, the doubters were heard from again. In January, Jackson published a direct attack on Cornell's science in The Auk, a respected bird publication. He charged, among other things, that Gallagher's original sighting suffered from what might be called "story creep." Gallagher's book, published in May 2005, estimates his distance from the bird at "less than 80 feet." In the July 2005 issue of Audubon magazine, his wife wrote that it was "less than 70 feet." In an interview on "60 Minutes" in October, Gallagher said the bird was "about 65 feet away." At one news conference, Fitzpatrick observed that if Gallagher and Harrison had not shouted, the bird "might even have landed on the canoe." Jackson wrote: "Observations can become more and more 'real' with the passing of time, as we forget the minor details and focus inwardly on the 'important' memory." He characterized Cornell's science, memorably, as "faith-based ornithology."
The video has always been held out by Cornell as the most solid proof. After all, the pileated has white on the front undersides of the wings; the ivory-bill's wing is distinguished by a lot of white on the top trailing feathers. But in March of this year, David Allen Sibley, the author of "Sibley's Guide to Birds," issued a frame-by-frame analysis of the video. (I know Sibley and have been in the woods with him on a few occasions.) Sibley's critique (which Cornell quickly rebutted) offered a completely different interpretation of the video. As Sibley saw it, the bird pushed back from the tree and rotated its wings furiously, scooping the air to gain initial flight. In other words, the "topside trailing feathers" you could see were actually the underside feathers of a wing strenuously wrenched backward in the act of getting airborne. The most famous ivory-billed woodpecker of the 21st century looked to David Allen Sibley like a pileated flying away.
Early last month, I was back in the swamp, this time with Bobby Harrison, the ivory-bill rock star. If you're going to spend a day in a swamp, there is no one better to spend it with than Harrison. He had a nearly silent trolling motor, so we were able to penetrate the darkness of the swamp this time without a peep, except when we were beating off cottonmouth snakes with our paddles or portaging the whole rig over frustrating logjams. After three miles we came into an area called Blue Hole, and we puttered up the way just past a visible A.R.U. when suddenly: bam-bam. "Did you hear that?" Harrison said. I had. No question. We pulled the canoe onto a mud bank and stepped out. Visibility was becoming limited, not because of light but because the forest was in early bud. Leaves seemed to grow bigger by the hour, making the distant vistas close right up around us. As Harrison and I stood there, a large black-and-white bird came from behind us and soared into the green. "Did you see that?" he said. I did. His eyes tightened with disappointment. "I couldn't tell," he said. Me either.
The problem with double knocks is that they are not that distinctive a sound. As Fitzpatrick himself told me: "There are certain double-knocky sounds that come from wood ducks flapping wings on the water or running into each other." Two branches banging in the wind can make that sound, as well as a distant truck running over a manhole cover.
When I was out in the canoe with Bill Tippit in February, we were disturbed by some amateur birders nearby, loudly discussing their dinner plans. Tippit hammered the side of our canoe twice with his paddle: bam-bam. The woods went so totally quiet that I might have been able to hear the birders scratching down the notes of their encounter if it hadn't been for Tippit's chuckling.
The first sentence of Gallagher's book reads, "I think I've always been the kind of person who gets caught up in obsessive quests, most of which seem to involve birds." This sentiment of deep longing grips all those now on the prowl in Arkansas. "It's been a fixation since early childhood," Fitzpatrick told me. If you accept the thinking of Jackson and Sibley, then it's possible to reread Gallagher's book not as a birder's adventure of discovery but as a fanatic's confession of self-delusion. He sometimes seems to undermine his own claims. Gallagher confesses to be prone, for example, to "quixotic quests." The code name used for the bird during the Inventory Project was "Elvis," an unusual choice given that Elvis is now someone seen by true believers but who is, well, extinct. In Gallagher's book, you can find Harrison's initial reaction to Luneau's video: "It makes a bad Bigfoot movie look good."
Gallagher also tells the story of a ghost-chaser named Mary Scott, who had an Arkansas sighting a year before Gene Sparling, the kayaker, and was the first person to alert Gallagher to Sparling's account. Scott is a former lawyer who in midlife took up residence in a yurt near her parents' house in Long Beach, Calif. On one birding expedition, Scott took along a friend who knew an "ivory-bill whisperer." With the clairvoyant on the cellphone, the search party learned that the bird wanted to be seen but was troubled by the group's "energy." Scott eventually wandered off by herself and, she says, saw the bird. In fact, Scott has seen the bird quite a lot, so much so that she is openly scorned by other birders. "I must admit," Gallagher nevertheless writes, "I had come to believe strongly in her sighting."
Trace back the involvement of the Department of the Interior, Cornell University, the Nature Conservancy and a half-dozen other groups on the ground, and you'll find that all of them, arguably, owe their presence in Arkansas to a tent-dwelling courthouse dropout taking her guidance from an ivory-bill whisperer on a cellphone.
From the moment the Inventory Project began, according to Scott Simon, environmental organizations carefully laid out a fund-raising strategy. The Nature Conservancy immediately went to work raising money to buy or option some 18,500 more acres. "Because 18,500 acres is about $28 million," Simon said, "we went to about seven or eight key donors who have supported other projects. We shared everything with them, like you would with a board member." Simon contacted people like Marshall Field, the department-store owner; Roger Sant, a founder of AES Corporation; and John Norris of Lennox Corporation. They were briefed on the ivory-bill after being asked to sign confidentiality agreements.
The conservancy was raising millions. Cornell, meanwhile, had committed itself to an extensive ground research operation costing, Fitzpatrick told me, "between half a million and a million dollars a year." At the time of the 2005 announcement of the discovery, Gale Norton, then the secretary of the interior, pledged more than $10 million in federal funds to help secure the bird's habitat. She called it the Corridor of Hope.
In his article in The Auk, Jackson describes the pressure this put on the bird sightings: "How many major donors, how many granting agencies, how many government officials would contribute to the more than $10 million associated with this effort, if the message had been only, 'There might be ivory-billed woodpeckers out there'?" The ivory-bill suddenly looked less like Audubon's stately woodpecker and more like Hammett's Maltese falcon.
The one sturdy argument on behalf of the ivory-bill is that there were repeated sightings, all by the Cornell team, during the secret mission. After Cornell got Gallagher's first sighting report, the ornithology lab excitedly sent down another experienced birder. He didn't see anything, but he returned with enough enthusiasm to inspire a half-dozen more birders to head down. Expanding the clique while still incubating the secret, Fitzpatrick dispatched ever-larger contingents.
"For me, it was just a recipe for misconception," Sibley told me recently. He and other birders believe this expanding pool of people being let in on a secret sighting may well have fed a kind of groupthink, leading to wishful sightings. But could such a thing happen among birders? Actually, it turns out, it does happen. A lot. In Sibley's introductory book, "Sibley's Birding Basics" (published long before these sightings), he warns against "the overexcited birder" and "group hysteria." Sibley cites "one very well documented case in California" in which "the first state record of the Sky Lark (a Eurasian species) was misidentified for days, and by hundreds of people, as the state's first Smith's Longspur."
"There is a long list of well-studied effects," Sibley told me. "There is peer pressure, the expectation of what they were there to do, as well as the authority effect of finding what the boss wants you to find." Most of the Cornell sightings occurred in the surge of joy immediately following Gallagher's return to Cornell. Since then, they have come less frequently. At the ivory-bill celebration in Brinkley, the organizer got up on the big night and said, "We were hoping that tonight we'd be making news with a big announcement from Cornell, but apparently we won't be."
These two opposing views in birding now exist side by side. Each day more birders join the Prum-Jackson-Sibley side. But the Gallagher-Harrison-Sparling view is not yielding any ground. In March, I was invited to attend the annual dinner of the Explorers Club, at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. The group is a grown-up version of the Boy Scouts, minus the solemnity of tying knots. In the hotel's Grand Ballroom, there was a visit from a llama and, of course, a march of penguins. The ivory-bill trio were onstage in black-tie to receive the coveted President's Award for Conservation. Around a banquet table loaded with exotic appetizers — "Sweet-and-Sour Bovine Penis Braised, With Testicular Partners" and "Mealworms With Durian Paste, on Toastettes" — the chat was about the thrill of the ivory-bill's rediscovery. Reports of Sibley's critique were still in the newspapers, yet there was not a peep of dissent to be heard near the "Kangaroo Balls Bourguignon."
The bird was both seen and unseen. "The Arkansas ivory-bill," Prum later told me, "is the W.M.D. of ornithology."
One morning last month in Arkansas, a Fish and Wildlife clerk named Karen, sporting ivory-bill earrings, winked at Harrison, handed me a map of the swamp and told us she'd been hearing about an area called the George Tract.
The ground there was not exactly swamp — just wet, full of sinks and little bogs. We didn't find much. We were just chatting when I asked Harrison if he could remember when he first got bit by ivory-bill fever.
"Oh, sure," he said, without pausing. "It was after reading Don Moser's article in Life magazine in 1972. I was 17 years old."
I had been hearing about this article — an account of a search for the ivory-bill — since the festival in February. Gallagher had mentioned it in his talk, and I noticed how often it came up in lunchtime chats with visiting birders. "I remember reading that Life magazine article," Fitzpatrick later told me. So I ordered the old magazine. From paragraph to paragraph, Moser's story quivers with melancholy and wistful longing, and as is typically found in Northern writing about the South, the author's prose goes all damp as he contemplates a landscape of things lost and, at twilight, almost found.
"If the question of its existence remains unanswered it will continue to range the back country of the mind," Moser wrote of the ivory-bill, "and those who wish to trail it there can find it in their visions."
"It's a funny thing about that magazine," Harrison said to me in the bog. "I cannot tell you how many people I stumble upon out here in the woods, and when we get to talking, I find out that they were inspired by the exact same article."
The greatest search for the ivory-bill was a 1935 expedition led by Arthur Allen, who, like Fitzpatrick, headed the Cornell ornithology lab. As Gallagher relates in his book, Allen and his team ventured into some virgin swamp in Louisiana known as the Singer Tract, owned by the company that bought such forests to make cabinets for its sewing machines. Allen not only saw the bird but also filmed it, photographed it and recorded it. Today, when Cornell scientists play the famous kent calls in Arkansas hoping to attract the bird, they are playing Allen's 70-year-old recordings.
After the expedition, Allen sent his best student, a young man named James Tanner, down South to spend three years observing the bird. Out of that work came a slim book, still in print, and no ghost-bird chaser is without a dogeared copy.
The burden of this noble history is undeniable. "No doubt about it, this is a venerable institution," Fitzpatrick said, "and one of the things I'm doing is sitting in Arthur Allen's chair." But that burden carries much more than the reputation of Cornell University. If the ivory-bill is a story, it is one that reaches deep into America's most anguished history.
After the Civil War, when the South lay in smoldering ruins with no railroad or economy and with federal troops occupying many of those states until 1877, there were no jobs for the freed slaves or the poor whites living on the land. When Reconstruction ended, the Northern timber companies descended. "Some 200 million acres of forest were cut in about 30 or 40 years," Scott Simon of the Nature Conservancy told me. (At one talk at the festival, a conservationist put up a slide depicting the annihilated "range of the ivory-bill." It was essentially the Confederacy.) These primeval swamps and old-growth forests had been sheared into flat farmland by the time Allen and his party headed South to visit the last stand of virgin woods.
It's hard to imagine that it's a coincidence that the story of the ivory-bill so often involves a serious Northern expert coming South to hook up with a smart-alecky good old boy from Dogpatch, and these two lighting out for the swamp to find the iconic bird. The stately Gallagher found Bobby Harrison, just as Allen and Tanner found an amusing local lawyer named Mason Spencer and a woodsman named J.J. Kuhn.
After Tanner returned from his famous study, naturalists undertook a monumental project to save the ivory-bill and its habitat. Chicago Mill, a lumber company that had bought the timber rights to most of the 81,000-acre Singer Tract, expressed some willingness to sell them, since there was no labor to cut the wood at the beginning of World War II. But in 1943, as Phillip Hoose recounts in his book "The Race to Save the Lord God Bird," negotiations with government officials and environmentalists broke down when company executives learned that German soldiers were being held in P.O.W. camps nearby and could be used to cut timber practically free. "We are just money grubbers," the company's chairman explained with a long-lost candor. Despite the intervention of four governors, the last large virgin forest in Dixie was clear-cut by Nazis.
After that, there has not been a single undisputed sighting of the ivory-bill. Some theorize that the bird, unable to find appropriate habitat, simply died out. Others disagree. "The bird didn't just die," Harrison explained to me. "He went — somewhere."
A lot of birders believe this, and perhaps that is why the recent Arkansas sightings are hardly unique. Ivory-bills have been seen sporadically since the end of World War II. In 1950, Chipola River, Fla. In 1955, Homosassa Springs, Fla. In 1966, Big Thicket, Tex. In 1971, in Atchafalaya Basin, La. In 1975, near Baton Rouge. In Cuba in the 1980's. In 1999, Pearl River Swamp, La. Each sighting had mythic tones, and not just because the iconic bird could never be definitively seen. There was also that repetition of plot that marks the cultural myth — the friendship of a Billy Yank and a Johnny Reb, the almost-confirmed sighting, talk of resurrection, sometimes a media circus or a fuzzy image. Some of these sightings led to vicious disagreements. The 1966 sighting by a very respected birder, John Dennis, ended brutally: "Dennis wants to believe he saw something," intoned James Tanner himself. "But he didn't." In 1971, George Lowery Jr. came forward with a story that he had befriended a local man who trained his dogs in the swamp. Lowery refused to identify his swamp-loving sidekick, who had given him two fuzzy Kodak Instamatic pictures of an ivory-bill on two different trees. Critics right away noticed that the ivory-bill had the exact same body posture in both pictures. The conclusion was that the bird was stuffed and put up in the tree. Lowery went to his death standing by his mysterious friend and the pictures.
"Am I worried?" Fitzpatrick mused. "That if the ivory-bill is never seen again that people will look back and say, 'Fitzpatrick laid an egg'? No. I did the right thing to jump on the story and put resources on the ground. We continue to focus on this as a conservation story whether or not the bird decorates the treetops." After the disputed sighting in Texas in 1966, 84,550 acres became the Big Thicket National Preserve. The Nature Conservancy says it will be satisfied if this sighting has a similar ending. "There may not be an ivory-bill there," said Steve McCormick, president of the conservancy, "but it's a habitat that now and forever could sustain an ivory-bill."
The ivory-bill's habitat is this Edenic swamp, an old and majestic forest. The names of the areas where it has been sighted — the Big Woods of Arkansas, the Big Thicket of Texas — suggest large and wild habitats, crowded with senator trees and brimming with other life. The swamp's ivory-bill is the storied messenger bird. He is Noah's dove, surviving improbably after a catastrophe to bring us grace. Lord God Bird, forgive us our trespasses.
Back three miles in the bayou with Bobby Harrison, the swamp air got a bit awkward. "We heard a double knock," he said from the back of the canoe. "That is so exciting."
"Yeah, I heard it," I replied. Harrison brought up the double knock a half-dozen times on our way in. He was plumbing my level of enthusiasm. He was listening for that certain tremolo, the true believer's excitement. I was cradling Schrödinger's cat as delicately as possible.
"That is such good news," he said. "It is the first indication all season that I had that tells me the bird is still here." We dragged the canoe through a shallow part of the swamp. The sun was setting. "I feel optimistic," he said.
But the truth is, few of the people involved in the hunt feel all that optimistic anymore. "It would be a shame if the bird is not there and a marvel if it is," McCormick confessed to me one day last month, "but what I care most passionately about is the integrity of the ecosystem and the fact of its rebounding, even if the bird is not there." When I asked Fitzpatrick recently what he had learned after studying the ivory-bill for two years, he said, "The bird is not that common."
Harrison attributed Fitzpatrick's slim finding to the Yankees' grids and transepts, which he mocked as a form of intellectual clear-cutting. "The Cornell method is a bust," he told me, adding, "They had a tiger hunt the other day. You know what a tiger hunt is? When the servants run through the woods banging pots and pans so the maharaja can walk in at the end and shoot the tiger." (Fitzpatrick prefers to call them saturation searches: "Using 30-odd people spaced out in the swamp with G.P.S.'s so that anything that moves that day, we'll find.") "It just shows you how desperate they are," Harrison added. "They'll never see the bird if they keep scaring it off." Harrison prefers the Tippit method, floating and sitting. Harrison has a camouflage rig that covers all of him and his canoe, leaving only his eyes to poke out of some fake leaves. "I want to become part of the landscape," he said, as much a dream as a strategy.
Since bird-watching season begins when the leaves fall off the trees, I asked Fitzpatrick if he intended to hit the swamps with the same ground operation this fall. "The answer is probably no," he said. "We will try to get more robotic. We'll use more technology without human effort."
The 22 paid staff members of this past winter will most likely be downsized to somewhere "in the 3-to-5 range," he said. But Fitzpatrick affirmed Cornell's commitment to Arkansas. "We'll be looking for years," he said. "Maybe for the rest of my life."Jack Hitt is a contributing writer. His last article for the magazine was about abortion in El Salvador.