The Last Ivory-Bill

Over mugs of coffee at my coffeehouse some 20 years ago, my friend Ricky said, apropos of nothing, “I’ve seen an ivory-billed woodpecker.”

At the time I was new enough to the area to not know about the elusive ivory-bill, how it captured imaginations in these parts, sent scores of bird-watchers into the woodlands of Kentucky and Arkansas and Louisiana over the decades in search of the mythical bird.

No one has seen one for decades, he told me.

I wasn’t entirely convinced he’d seen one, either. Ricky was a somewhat unreliable narrator. He said a lot of things that weren’t exactly false but didn’t quite meet the threshold for true. He claimed, for example, that he had designed a perpetual motion machine, that he would demonstrate it for me one day, though that day never came. So, grains of salt all around.

Still, he was adamant about seeing the ivory-bill. Swore it was not a pileated, even though the two birds look similar. Swore he could tell the difference, the ivory-bill being larger, with different coloring, a different crest. About his ability to discern such details I have little doubt; Ricky was an artist with a keen artist’s eye, a painter of wildlife, a noticer. He said he saw an ivory-bill. So I gave him the benefit of that doubt.

He’d reported the sighting to the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife, but he had no expectation they would follow up on his claim. He had no photographic evidence, no fellow wanderer to confirm his report. Moreover, his faith in the bureaucracy was nonexistent. In the case of the ivory-bill, he saw a clear conflict of interest: if the bird was extinct, tracts of forest now designated critical habitat would be open for logging.

So maybe there was pressure from loggers to make it official. Maybe.

But he saw what he saw.

This past week, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed removing the ivory-billed woodpecker from the endangered species list, declaring it extinct. No confirmed sightings since 1944. Just scattered claims, like Ricky’s.

Seven decades is a long time to go unseen.

Of course, if I were a creature on that list, I would hide from us, too. Wouldn’t you?

Ricky’s been gone nearly a decade now. The ivory-bill may have preceded him, may have lingered on for awhile longer. But I will continue to believe that my friend saw one of last of them, a mere twenty years ago, on an artist’s tramp through a wooded glade in some Kentucky holler.

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