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He's Big, Beautiful, and Hard to Find


A generation ago, American kids got a kick out of a naughty, somewhat deranged cartoon bird named Woody Woodpecker. In movie shorts and on television, he would rat-tat-tat his way into trouble, laughing all the while.

Now there's another famous American woodpecker, but he's much more sedate. In fact, the ivory-billed woodpecker is so reclusive, some people think he doesn't exist!

If he does, the male is a big fellow -- 50 centimeters from the tip of his tail to the top of his bright-red crest. The female is mostly black.

Back in the 1930s, deep in the woods, someone recorded an ivory-billed's call, which doesn't sound much like Woody Woodpecker. In fact, it sounds a bit like a hoot owl.

This creature was thought to have been hunted to extinction in the dense hardwood forests of the American South. The last one showed his pretty red head for sure in 1944.

But duck hunters and other outdoorsmen kept hearing what they swore was the ivory-billed's distinctive double tap. Someone even recorded one in Arkansas' Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

And in 2004, a birder caught a quick glimpse on film of what sure looks like an ivory-billed in flight. So Cornell University organized an all-out search that produced a few more eyeball-only sightings of a single bird.

Why not more? Well, the Cache Refuge alone covers 200,000 hectares of incredibly dense woods that are filled with cottonmouth snakes. That sure puts a damper on searching. And the search season is short, since you can't see much of anything once the trees leaf-up in late April.

Skimpy though the results have been, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced a recovery plan -- a $27-million plan! -- to promote the survival of whatever ivory-billed woodpeckers are left.

That's a lot of money for a phantom bird. But the folks at Fish and Wildlife say any species that can be saved is worth the trouble and expense. And they say the evidence that a few ivory-billed woodpeckers are still with us is just too tantalizing to ignore.