The enduring search for the “grail bird”

Back in 2005, environmentalists and people who care about wildlife celebrated news that seemed too good to be true: a team of researchers said they had found ivory-billed woodpeckers in a remote swamp in Arkansas. There had been no verified observations of these spectacular birds since 1944, and prior to this reported sighting the species was widely accepted to have gone extinct as a result of destruction of their swamp forest habitat by timber companies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Now, it seemed, they had risen from the dead.

In hindsight, the news might indeed have been too good to be true. The researchers’ discovery was based on blurry photos and video footage, and subsequent searches failed to turn up more irrefutable evidence of ivory-bills’ continued existence. In 2021, the species was declared officially extinct by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. But the dream that they might somehow still be out there never completely died.

Indeed, few thought-to-be-extinct animals have captivated people’s imaginations quite like the ivory-billed woodpecker. The largest woodpecker native to the US, their stunning plumage and impressive size gave them the nickname “Lord God bird.” More recently, ivory-bills have become known as the “grail bird,” the rarest of the rare and a prize sought by the most intrepid searchers for species that might no longer exist.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with evaluating available evidence to determine whether a species like the ivory-bill might still be out there, and therefore worthy of continued efforts to protect it. Though the decision would theoretically be based on the best science, it is impossible to remove it from political context. If ivory-bills are officially declared extinct, then developers don’t have to worry about constraints on activities that might further endanger them. Conversely, environmental groups and Indigenous nations have rightly protested that if there is even a tiny chance that ivory-bills continue to haunt the swamps of the Southeast, we should make every effort to protect them. The Cherokee Nation objected to the declaration of extinction based on the fact that the birds are important to Cherokee culture and should be brought back to healthy status if at all possible.

Meanwhile, last year another group of researchers announced they had captured what they believe is footage showing living ivory-bills, this time in Louisiana. The findings have reportedly not yet been peer-reviewed, and have already been contested. But for now, they have rekindled hope that the grail bird may yet be somewhere out there.

Is there good reason to hope that this time, the existence of ivory-bills might be confirmed by additional scientific studies? I honestly don’t know, but I would certainly like to think so. The disappearance of the ivory-bill is tragic in itself, but is also a symptom of the larger decline of the old-growth swamp forest habitat that once stretched across much of the Southeast United States. This unique ecosystem, where Florida panthers and red wolves once hunted in swamps bursting with alligators and water moccasins, has almost completely disappeared due to the depredations of the timber industry. The rediscovery of ivory-billed woodpeckers would be a lifeline for efforts to restore this ancient habitat to its former majesty.

It is, unfortunately, entirely possible and perhaps even likely that these latest reports of living ivory-bills will turn out to be another case of wishful thinking projected onto blurry images. However, if there is any chance at all that the grail bird might still exist, we would do well to do anything in our power to protect it from final extinction.

Photo credit: Lusanaherandraton

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