home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

stalking the ghost bird

15 july 2009

I have now read three books about the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in the past five years. Michael Steinberg's Stalking the Ghost Bird is a special entry in the bibliography of the great woodpecker. Steinberg concentrates his investigation on the ivory-bill in Louisiana, where no definitive scientific proof exists of its survival. Yet if the bird survives in Arkansas, where the best evidence has been found, there is all the more reason to suspect that it survives in Louisiana, where the best and largest habitats persist. On such slim grounds, Steinberg constructs an eminently readable and informative book.

The underlying theme of Ghost Bird might be ornithological epistemology. How do we know that an endangered bird species is unextinct? Catching one and putting it in a zoo would be nice. Shooting one would not be so nice, and would have the nefarious consequence that you might well have shot the very last of its kind. Video, still photos, and distinctive audio recordings are the next-best thing. The birding community has its own protocols for authenticating sightings, based on corroboration and field notes. Non-professional folk culture has yet another set of rules. Credentials of the observers matter, too. Steinberg is more inclined to believe non-birders than birders; non-birders have no life-lists to expand. Otherwise indifferent duck and deer hunters are his most reliable informants. From there, though, it's another step down to neophyte and casual birdwatchers, and thence to mild crazies like the individual who took Steinberg out into impossible habitat in the Atchafalaya Basin and got him well and truly lost in search of what couldn't have been ivory-bills at all.

Steinberg, while retaining utmost respect for credentialed observers, trusts "folk" sightings more than most writers do. Lots of people are still around who remember ivory-bills as fairly common sights from their childhoods in the 1930s and before. Many people know the birds of the South in familiar, intimate ways. Some even ate chicken-fried ivory-bill during the Depression. They are going to know whether or not they've seen the South's most famous avian.

I am never going to see an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in the wild. (I have had trouble enough finding one in a museum, though I wandered into a back corridor of the American Museum of Natural History a few years ago and ran across an Imperial Woodpecker in a semi-abandoned glass case. The Imperial, equally endangered and equally common in quasi-cryptid sightings in Mexico, was the ivory-bill's bigger cousin, and equally deserves the name Lord God Bird.)

The reasons I won't see the bird in the wild are neatly enumerated by Steinberg. Ivory-bill habitat consists of seasonally-flooded river bottoms that are excellent habitat for mosquitoes, nettles, poisonous snakes, razory palmettos, bears, boars, and alligators. I am moderately distressed by cockroaches, let alone the monsters that dwell in the Atchafalaya. And I'm not alone. Steinberg theorizes that the reason lots of weekend birders haven't scored an ivory-bill is that it takes thousands of hours in very hostile environments to accumulate enough chances to succeed.

If only a few dozen mating pairs of the bird survive in hundreds of thousands of swampy acres, it's going to be near-impossible to find them by design. James Tanner's classic studies in the Singer Tract of Northeast Louisiana suggested that the bird was easy to approach; observers clear back to Audubon remarked on its noisy, public nature. But the bird may well have altered its behavior since Tanner basically cornered the last population of any size in the increasingly circumscribed Singer forests. Steinberg also suggests that ivory-bills may migrate quite a bit along river corridors that connect the remaining habitats of the Southern states, which would complicate efforts to search particular sites for them.

Another complication is the intense mistrust that local property-owners have for the government. If ivory-bills are found on their land, some Louisiana residents believe, it'll be the spotted owl all over again: Uncle Sam will seize the land and turn it into some kind of tree-hugging preserve. And they thought this, mind you, while George W. Bush was President. Such folks will not be very eager to spread the news about a fabulously endangered species if it shows up in their back yard.

I am content to remain a vicarious, armchair hunter for the Ivory-Bill, as long as my experience is channeled through writers as perceptive and engaging as Michael Steinberg.

Steinberg, Michael K. Stalking the Ghost Bird: The elusive Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.