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by Jerome A. Jackson

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 1-58834-132-1

Well-synthesized portrait of the rare, possibly extinct bird from one of its greatest admirers.

In 1973, on the Noxubee River just inside the Alabama border, ornithologist Jackson thought he saw an ivory-billed woodpecker. By then, he had followed the ivory-billed trail for close to a decade, and he would go on for another 30 years to explore the bird’s former haunts in the river bottoms and adjacent uplands of Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, Florida’s Fakahatchee Stand, the Big Thicket of Texas, Mississippi’s Yazoo, and on over to Cuba, where in 1988 Jackson had two possible sightings and a number of clear audibles. Here, with an enthusiasm that keeps clear of obsession, the author gathers a goodly amount of the available documentation on the ivory-billed: its undulating, jerky flight; its call, once described as “the burry reed notes of the bagpipe”; its diet, clutch size, and anatomy; its range and predilection for specific habitats. To these nuts and bolts of good natural history, Jackson adds a human touch with a swath of anecdotal material. He provides small-scope biographies of well-known bird folk—among them, Mark Catesby, Alexander Wilson, John James Audubon—and their relationships with the ivory-billed; students of the bird, Arthur Allen and James Tanner in particular, get more extensive backgrounders. Jackson examines the ivory-billed’s iconic status, from trade and use by native populations to its employment on stamps and whiskey decanters. The author argues persuasively that we should not assume the bird is extinct in the US, citing its rarity, wariness, potential quietude (though it can also be a yapper), long lifespan, and the remoteness of its preferred nesting sites as possible reasons for the lack of documented sightings over the past 60 years.

Vital, thorough, and light of touch: rays of hope play against an admonitory tale of habitat and perhaps even species destruction. (30 halftones)