'Welcome back,' from our family of woodpeckers

If we hadn't heard on the morning radio that an ivory-billed woodpecker had been sighted alive and well in Arkansas, word would have reached us very soon. Just the other day, fresh from a visit to the John James Audubon Museum in Henderson, Ky., (where the artist's vivid painting of an ivory-billed woodpecker is on display), we'd been talking about the bird and lamenting its probable extinction with a visiting friend. Dan's phone call came right before another from Charlie's daughter - both wanting to make sure we had heard the startling and heartening news of the species' apparent survival off canvas, in a remote bayou of Arkansas.

The last credible sighting of the bird had come in 1944 in Louisiana. Its presumed demise by midcentury was attributed to its striking beauty and value as a collector's trophy, as well as to the heavy logging of its old-growth forest habitat. All naturalists mourned the loss of this magnificent and graceful creature, whose effect on those lucky enough to have seen it in flight won it the nickname "Lord God Bird" (as in "Lord, God! What a bird!").

Periodic accounts of its continued existence came from remote regions of the south throughout the second half of the 20th century, but none could be scientifically substantiated. The 2004 Arkansas sightings were not even publicly reported at once because ornithologists wanted to provide incontrovertible proof that the bird first spied by a kayaker on the Cache River in February was truly an ivory-billed. Subsequent sightings of the bird in flight came from, among others, a scientist who wept when he realized what he had witnessed.

I can't claim to know how he felt - one had to have been there and seen that almost three-foot wingspan beating through the dim swamp to understand. Still, we all can share something of his emotion just knowing that this magnificent species has survived against all odds and might stage a comeback - if its remaining pocket of habitat can be preserved and enlarged.

Here in south-central Indiana, several hundred miles to the northeast of the Cache River, we are unlikely ever to see an ivory-billed. Yet our 80-acre farm is home to healthy populations of downy, red-headed, and yellow-bellied woodpeckers, some of which feed with the songbirds on the sunflower seeds we scatter over our porch steps every morning.

On one of my recent walks to the mature forest in back of the farm, I happened to see a more reclusive pileated woodpecker swoop to a great hollowed sycamore and gracefully disappear inside. Knowing exactly where he lives is a sweet burden I am in no hurry to share. The ivory-billed woodpecker, it seems to me, is even more deserving of the privacy its future may depend upon.

Yesterday I walked along the edges of those same woods looking for wild mushrooms. I was still buoyed by the thought of this almost mythical bird on the wing, yet I mused over whether the sighting wasn't a mixed blessing. Assuming the male photographed wasn't the very last of the ivory-billed (having had my hopes raised, I refuse to believe that) how many are there? Will the remaining bird(s) be loved to death by an adoring public? How will they tolerate an almost certain influx of birders hoping for a personal encounter?

Rain was threatening and the light was low when I noticed a low percussive accompaniment to the usual April birdsong. The rapping of woodpeckers seemed to echo from all directions. I stopped, half thinking I was imagining it - but no, it was real, coming from near and far, one series of tappings answering another and fading into the distance.

Charlie, I later learned, had noticed the unusual chorus too. We looked at each other, neither daring to be the first to anthropomorphize so blatantly. But we both clearly pictured an extended family of woodpeckers, stretching from those in our own trees to others along Indiana's White and Wabash Rivers, the Ohio and the Mississippi - all applauding the long-lost cousin with the big wings and wild yellow eyes who'd put in an appearance at last.

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