Recent news from Bayou DeView, Arkansas, would have had my dad dancing in the street. The news had nothing to do with the town itself. Actually, the place is so small that apparently both Rand and McNally decided it wasn’t worth putting on the map.
What happened in Bayou DeView is that it’s the place scientists recently confirmed the sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker—a bird long thought to be extinct. The reason Dad would be overjoyed is that he reported seeing an ivorybill in the late 1940s in the boot heel of Missouri, about fifty miles to the northeast.
At the time, Dad was a forester working for the Missouri Conservation Commission. On that day he was surveying an area of dense timber in the swampy land along the Arkansas border. When he got home that night, his eyes were glowing as though he had been abducted by aliens. He was more excited than I ever saw him either before or after.
“I was sitting on a fallen log eating my lunch when the bird flew up and landed on a tree just a few feet away from me,” I remember him saying. Dad added that he watched the bird for several minutes before it flew away.
To show us what he had seen, he pulled out the encyclopedia and turned to the picture and description of the bird. The text confirmed that the ivory-billed woodpecker was thought to be extinct. That same evening Dad drew a picture of the bird he had seen and colored it with a set of colored pencils he used for making maps.
The next day he sent the drawing with a letter describing the sighting in detail to the state ornithologist at the university. A couple of weeks later he got a reply saying that he was mistaken and that what he had actually seen had to have been a pileated woodpecker—a bird that resembles the ivorybill. The ornithologist added that, sadly, the ivory-billed woodpecker was extinct.
Dad was crestfallen. He was also more than a little angry. He was a scientist himself—a trained observer—and although he was not an ornithologist, he was used to doing fieldwork and making highly detailed observations. What he saw was not a pileated woodpecker, but an ivory-billed woodpecker. All of this he put down in another letter that he fired off to the university.
I remember the letter he got in response. It was a single, handwritten line that simply said, “The ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct!” It wasn’t even signed. I remember Dad reading it slowly several times, shaking his head, and then returning the letter to its envelope and filing it away in his desk. He never mentioned it again.
Dad died several years ago after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He had lived in a nursing home for some years, and pretty much all that he did in his professional life had long been forgotten. Sadly, the drawing he made and the letters from the university have also vanished.
But now—more than five decades after that day when he sat eating his lunch on a log in the woods—comes documented proof that the ivory-billed woodpecker has indeed survived. And so, it seems, has the validity of my dad’s claim. Way to go, Dad!