Years ago, a friend long-term loaned me a book called The Ivory Hunters by Greg Lewbart. I took it with me on the ivory-bill search last December and our crew had a fun time reading certain passages aloud. It’s a “what if” type book about the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker—which came out in 1996, so this guy wasn’t even trying to capitalize on the current situation.
Basically, the bird is found and a mercenary tries to sell the location to the highest bidder, which includes a couple who own a zoo that’s about to go bankrupt, a private bird collector and an educational institution. You figure out pretty quick who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, I read it with interest and then shook my head in disbelief when the ivory-billed woodpecker turned unexpectedly violent. Here is an excerpt--Warning, skip past the bolded paragraph if you ever intend to read this hard to find book and don’t want any spoilers:
“…the thick sharp bill of the male ivory-bill penetrated Cutter’s exposed right eye before he even had a chance to blink. The bird’s momentum drove its bill easily through the man’s right gelatinous globe before tunneling past the thick optic nerve on its way to the vulnerable gray matter of Cutter’s brain. With its face neatly buried in Cutter’s eye socket, the powerful bird planted both feet on the man’s face, gripped tightly, and used it legs as leverage in order to extract its blood tinged bill from Cutter’s cranium.”
Perhaps, it’s best that the ivory-billed woodpecker isn’t so easy to see. What a PR nightmare for Cornell to have if the woodpecker is offing searchers right and left! Maybe the reason why it’s so hard to find is that we are focusing on ivory-billed woodpeckers and not bloody red-billed woodpeckers?
Looking over the book tonight got my mind working. When news of the ivory-billed woodpecker rediscovery hit last spring, there was concern early on that the area would be flooded with birders and searched to death. All the people down there would do more harm than good for the birds.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that there are five ivory-billed woodpeckers left in Arkansas, not really enough for a starter set to replenish the population, but definitely some down there. Woodpeckers aren’t known to do really well in captivity anyway, so even if the birds are spotted and tracked, doing a captive breeding program would be out of the question. What do you do then?
So, the rarest woodpecker has been rediscovered and so far only grainy footage is available to the public, leading to speculation that the bird in question was misidentified. Now, all the leading bird experts are proclaiming that the bird isn’t really there based on physical evidence presented so far. They keep saying it’s all a hoax, there’s no ivorybill, causing the public to lose interest and ignore the area where it was seen. Perhaps everyone who is most vocal about the non-existence of ivory-billed woodpeckers are the strongest believers and are their most fervent protectors. It would make sense, Kaufman and Sibley are both guys who believe that a bird’s well being should come before anything else.
Let's take it a step further. Maybe Cornell and The Nature Conservancy have had excellent documentation and photos so far. Maybe they had intended to keep this secret for years, but somehow it leaked and they had to show their cards last spring. Knowing that everyone and their birding brother would want to search the area, they threw out red herrings and poor evidence to allow the inevitable media circus and scrutiny to pass so that the woodpeckers would eventually be left alone in peace. Maybe all the skeptics were recruited by Cornell to aid in the misdirection.
Or maybe my parents watched too many JFK/UFO/Elvis conspiracy theory videos when I was a kid and they rubbed off on me.