Finding The 'Lord God Bird'

<b>Ed Bradley</b> Reports On The Rediscovery Of The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

The ivory-billed woodpecker is one of the most celebrated birds in U.S. history, a bird that has been an American superstar since pre-colonial times.

Even though it has been presumed extinct for 60 years, thousands of birdwatchers never gave up searching for what they call the "Lord God bird."

Earlier this year when it was disclosed that an ivory-billed woodpecker had been spotted in Arkansas, the reaction was extraordinary.

Correspondent Ed Bradley reports.



The ivory-billed woodpecker's resurrection is an amazing story — not just about the bird but the people who are obsessed with it. It's also a story involving extraordinary luck, secrecy, millions of dollars and months of searching a forest in eastern Arkansas looking for a flying needle in a haystack.

All that's left of the "Big Woods" — a forest that once covered 24 million acres and stretched from Memphis, Tenn., to Little Rock — is some 500,000 acres in Arkansas. The spectacular swamps and hardwood forests of the South were once home to the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Stories about the woodpecker go back to the days when only native Americans were in the region. Some saw its skull as a symbol of power, the feathers as objects of beauty. In Victorian times, women prized the feathers for their hats.

By the beginning of the last century, the bird had been nearly hunted to extinction. It was said to be so beautiful that when people saw it, they said, "Lord God! What a bird!" The name stuck.

The "Lord God bird" was the largest woodpecker in America. But for more than half a century, the only way you could see one was in stuffed form.

"It's a huge, black woodpecker, basically, with lightning bolts of white down the back and a huge patch of white on the wings," explains John Fitzpatrick, head of the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University and a leading authority on birds.

Fitzpatrick says the bird has a distinctive sound that has been likened to a tin horn.

The first recording of that sound was made in 1935 in Louisiana by a team of scientists from Cornell. They also took the first pictures of the bird.

At the time, the "Lord God bird" was already on the verge of extinction. In the following decade, logging reduced its last known habitat to thousands of stumps.

"This has been the symbol of what we did wrong. The complete annihilation of one of America's most treasured and spectacular pieces of land. We cut it all," says Fitzpatrick.

By the 1940s the ivory-billed woodpecker was presumed extinct.

Gene Sparling, an outdoorsman from Hot Springs, Ark., also thought the bird had been extinct during his entire lifetime.

In February 2004, Sparling was kayaking in the Big Woods when he saw something he will never forget. "A large woodpecker flew into the channel from above the canopy. He was headed straight towards me."

Sparling considered that it might be the smaller woodpecker that's common around the region called "the pilleated," but ruled it out. "I realized that if it was not a pilleated, the only other alternative was for it to be an ivory bill," he says.

Sparling made a veiled reference to his sighting on the Internet, and got a response right away.

"We came down, you know, just a few days later. As quick as we could get out of town," says Tim Gallagher, a wildlife photographer and author from Cornell.

He was joined by Bobby Harrison, a college professor from Alabama, and both are "ivory-billed hunters" — bird watchers who have been looking for the bird for years believing it's still alive.

When they heard about his sighting, they immediately contacted Sparling, who took them near the spot where he saw the bird.

"And then this bird just burst across in front of us at close range," Gallagher says. "About 65 feet away. And right in the sunlight. … And it was just, I mean, I dropped my paddle and almost fell out of the canoe. I mean it was like getting slapped in the face."

  • Daniel Schorn

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