The ivory-billed woodpecker again fascinates a writer for the New York Times, this time Jack Hitt in a lengthy piece in the magazine section that recounts, in part, how he believes he saw the bird once thought extinct.
Since that February afternoon, I have been able to say, “I saw an ivory-billed woodpecker,” yet I have not said it. It turns out it’s not an easy sentence to utter, and not only because all I really saw was a distant flash of black feathers. I got a better sense of the difficulty of this claim when I attended the Call of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Celebration in February in nearby Brinkley (formerly Lick Skillet), Ark. The town had so gussied itself up in midwinter woodpecker boosterism that I fully expected to see a parade led by Robert Preston sporting an ivory-bill haircut (available at Penny’s Hair Care for $25). A modest motel is now the Ivory Billed Inn. Gene’s Restaurant and Barbecue offers an ivory-bill cheeseburger. There’s even ivory-bill blue: I bought a T-shirt that reads, “Got Pecker?” And yet talk of seeing the bird was curiously absent. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like saying you’ve walked on the moon or been anointed by the Dalai Lama. It’s a boast of immense magnitude, frightening to claim, and here’s why: In the weeks after the initial sighting, Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology flew down dozens of scientists to comb the swamp, and the Nature Conservancy intensified its efforts to secure large swaths of the habitat. Even the Department of the Interior got involved. The gravitas of powerful institutions and eminent professionals now looms over every claim.