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Chasing a Dream

This story revolves around a bird, but it's not really about a bird. It's about hope and possibly redemption. It's about the dream that there may be parts of America that remain unaffected by human greed and folly.

Somewhere in the bayous of Louisiana, a team of biologists is quietly at work. With binoculars, scopes, cameras, and tape recorders they're seeking hard evidence that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still exists. Never mind that the bird, the largest woodpecker in North America, was officially declared extinct in 1997. Several ornithologists who've been monitoring purported sightings of the species over the past twenty years feel the declaration may have been premature.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker resembles a large Pileated Woodpecker with more white on its wings and a bright ivory-colored bill. The current search for it will occupy a team of six biologists for thirty days and focus on a swampy area in Louisiana chosen for its likelihood to support these creatures.

Prime Ivory-billed Woodpecker habitat consists of bottomland swamps that support mature stands of Bald Cypress and Sweetgum trees. Unfortunately, most of the accessible habitat of this type was logged in the middle of the last century. Although people knew that the Ivory-billed populations were dwindling as a result of logging, there was no endangered species act at the time to protect the birds, and they were squeezed out of existence due to habitat loss. Or were they?

The search is made especially difficult by the nature of the terrain. Meandering rivers, dense undergrowth, and unpredictable flooding combine to insure the privacy of all the region's inhabitants. It's probably the only landscape in the entire United States where a creature as big as a crow and with a habit of loud calling and territorial drumming could escape detection. One reason to search now is to take advantage of the bird's noisiness, which peaks during these wet months as pair bonds and territories are established.

If the search turns up incontrovertible proof that the species still exists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to devise a habitat management plan to control access to the area -- though the natural inaccessibility of these swamps seems to be doing a fine job already.

And if the searchers don't find the bird? Most of us who write (and dream) about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the present tense will continue to hope that there's a place in the world where this magnificent bird can call and drum and even raise young beyond the scrutiny of humans.