Back to Nature (Published on - Sept. 9, 2005)
The ivory billed woodpecker
Ivory Billed Woodpecker, Illustration by MARK BOWERS
The long feared extinct, magnificent ivory billed woodpecker still lives.
The overnight fog had set in thick, gray swathes as if theatrical curtains swept across a shimmering stage in motion upon the Magnetawan River. Old homes dotted the river, some elegant, some nothing more than economical fishing shacks with the distance between each abode being amicably secluded.

The Magnetawan river south of North Bay and northeast of Burks Falls, Ontario, which rises in the northwest part of Algonquin Provincial Park and then flows southwest and west, past Magnetawan, to Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, is aptly named by the Algonquin natives as, “Swiftly flowing River.” It’s a heavenly place for canoeist, kayaker, birdwatcher or naturalist.

The wilderness, bogs and marshes surrounding the river is home to beaver, moose, martins, great blue heron, American bitterns, cedar-waxwings, to name just a few. Everyday living on the river brought about a surprise.

One afternoon while lazily reading a book and swatting mosquitoes, I observed a bird on a distant tree that immediately prickled my senses. I made a double-take then called over my companion and asked him, “What do you see there on that tree?”

“Large black bird, white bill, red crest, swathe of white across the end tips of the wings,” he responded.

I was shaking, and ran into the cottage to get my bird books and a sketch pad. We held the book up to the bird in question looking back and forth and at each other. It could not be – ivory billed woodpecker: extinct. But there it was in front of us.

I had time to make a quick sketch for clarity of memory later on. We thought long and hard about reporting this sighting, but both, in the long run, decided we would rather not expose ourselves to looking like idiots, rationalizing that if we saw the bird surely others with more credibility than us would see it. That was 21 years ago.

Recently, we both read with renewed interest a press release from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that the long feared extinct, magnificent ivory billed woodpecker still lives and has been rediscovered in the Big Woods of Arkansas. Published in the journal, “Science” April 28, 2005: More than 60 years after the last confirmed sighting of the species in the United States, a research team today announced that at least one male ivory bill still survives in vast areas of bottomland swamp forest. The recordings reveal sounds that experts say are strikingly similar to those made by ivory billed woodpeckers and provide compelling information that can be added to evidence already gathered of the bird’s existence.

One of the recordings, from January 24, 2005, captured a distant double knock, “Bam bam!” followed by a similar and much closer double knock 3.5 seconds later – possibly the drumming displays of two ivory billed woodpeckers communicating with one another by rapping on trees.

A team led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and other partners, will renew search efforts in Big Woods, Arkansas, beginning Nov. 1.

The Big Woods team wants you! The team is requesting the assistance of the public and is encouraging the public to become involved. There is a Web site set up so you can learn more about this elusive bird at You can view videos, photos and listen to calls while educating you about this once extinct ivory billed woodpecker.

Suggestion: keep a camera close at hand. Maybe it will be you sitting in that easy chair, while swatting flies and mosquitoes that looks up to observe an ivory billed woodpecker one day returned back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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