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Media Article # 482

Saturday, February 25, 2006

[IBW research expands, gets gov funding]

By Jamie Reid
[Texas] The Beaumont Enterprise

The "Holy Grail" of birds - the ivory-billed woodpecker, believed extinct until a possible 2004 sighting - may be alive in Southeast Texas.

A team of scientists will soon scout the Neches, Sabine and Trinity river corridors for a glimpse of the bird, which was thought to be extinct for six decades.

The woodpecker, North America's largest, was declared alive in the Big Woods of Eastern Arkansas in 2004 by a team of researchers.

They were reputable birders and had lots of evidence, including recordings of the bird's distinctive double rap when pounding wood and a blurry video of the bird, called the "Bigfoot video" by some.

It was enough. The birding world went wild.

"I thought it was the most exciting thing I had ever heard in my lifetime," said John Arvin, research coordinator for Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. "I was blown away."

It was a dinosaur discovered. Lazarus resurrected.

Soon after the announcement, people started organizing their own scouting trips in spots where the woodpecker once ranged.

People are searching for the ivory bill in the swampy forests of East Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana, said Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the Southeast Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Money is going toward finding and saving the bird.

In a 2007 budget request, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked for $2.1 billion, with about $800,000 going toward recovery and management plans for the woodpecker, according to a press release.

In Southeast Texas, a team of three people will look for the bird next winter and in the spring of 2007, when trees have lost their leaves. The search is funded by a $100,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant awarded to the bird observatory.

Arvin has already been approached by several people who want to be on the search team, but he has not made selections.

Southeast Texas has a rich history of ivory bill sightings.

In 1837, naturalist John James Audubon saw many birds along Buffalo Bayou in Houston, according to the Nature Conservancy.

The birds began to die out around the turn of the century as loggers took down about 90 percent of the wetland forests, which provided their homes, MacKenzie said.

They were believed to be extinct by the 1950s. Anyone who said saw the bird was ridiculed.

Ornithologist John V. Dennis reported seeing a female ivory bill in the Big Thicket in 1966 and recorded its call in 1968. The calls could be a blue jay mimicking the ivory bill, people decided.

Dennis was ridiculed by the science community.

"His honesty and sanity were questioned," Arvin said. "On his deathbed, he was a bitter person. Unfortunately, he didn't live quite long enough to see this rediscovery."

The people of Brinkley, Ark., have capitalized on the woodpecker next door.

The town of about 4,000 had an empty downtown and few employment opportunities before the ivory bill was spotted miles away. Most people worked the land, growing rice, soybeans, wheat, cotton and corn, 69-year-old Evelyn Miley said in a phone interview.

Now, new ivory-billed businesses have opened to cater to the many reporters and birders who flocked to the town.

A motel changed its name to "The Ivory-Billed Inn." A shop devoted exclusively to all things woodpecker is called "The Ivory-Billed Nest." A restaurant serves "ivory-billed burgers," and a local barbershop offers an "ivory-billed haircut."

The hairdresser spikes hair into a mohawk (without cutting hair) and colors it with red and white paint, Miley said.

Even Miley, a volunteer at the Brinkley Chamber of Commerce, has become an entrepreneur while all things woodpecker fly off the shelves. She makes her own note cards, embossed with a hand-painted ivory bill.

"It put us on a worldwide stage," said Keith Stephens, assistant chief of communications for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. "It went all over the world in the blink of an eye."

Locals were worried a huge influx would trample the Arkansas forests, but the visitors have only improved the area, Stephens said.

About 4,500 acres of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge has been closed to the public so researchers can study the woodpecker, Stephens said.

And nearby Dagmar Wildlife Management Area caters to a steady stream of visitors with portable toilets in the woods, he said.

Arvin would love to find an ivory bill here, in Southeast Texas.

Next week, Arvin will fly over Southeast Texas looking for areas the woodpecker would likely live - large forests with old, hardwood trees. The team will start looking at the end of the year.

"We are itching to get into the field," he said.

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