Bird Watcher's General Store

Ivory-Billed in Sandwich - 03/26/04


Dear Bird Folks:

Perhaps you can shed some light on a series of odd emails that I have been receiving. In the past two weeks, I have gotten notes from friends all over the country asking me to confirm reports of an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker sighting in Shawme-Crowell State Park here in Sandwich. Confused but curious, I drove over to the park only to find it closed to the public. Now I don't know what to think. Have you heard anything about an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in Sandwich or anyplace else?

-Kyle, E. Sandwich

Me too Kyle,

I, too, got emails from all over about this thought-to-be-extinct woodpecker. And just like you, I hopped into my car and headed over to the state park, where I, too, was stopped by police barriers. However, I decided that the barriers were merely a suggestion and continued down the road. I was soon stopped by a state natural resources officer who uttered the words that I have heard so many times before, "Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to leave." I spent the next four hours on the phone trying to find out what was going on and believe me, Kyle, I found out plenty.

The magnificent Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America, was never very common. Last century's over-cutting of its critical southern woodland habitat sealed the bird's fate. The last living Ivory-Billed Woodpecker was seen in Louisiana in 1943.

So why is there one in Sandwich? Scientists have long believed that creatures hold the power of "spontaneous regeneration." Although the odds are astronomical, DNA research has proven that similar species have the genetic code to produce a closely related family member. It is thought, for example, that purple finch adults occasionally produced full-fledged house finch offspring. However, since there are so many of both finches around, it is a difficult theory to prove. And guess what, the extinct Ivory-Billed and the locally common Pileated Woodpecker are very closely related birds. They re the perfect candidates for spontaneous regeneration.

Then, in the Spring of 2003, the plot really started to thicken. In the Mt. Tom State Reservation in western Massachussetts, a female Pileated Woodpecker was seen feeding three chicks, two normal sized chicks and one shockingly jumbo one. After two feeble attempts to capture the massive chick failed, the big baby was written off as a victim of steroid use. That large woodpecker soon disappeared and was not seen again, until last week.

It is now believed that the Mt.Tom bird is the same bird that is being seen in Sandwich and that the Sandwich bird is the first Ivory-Billed Woodpecker that has been seen in 60 years. The scope of this ornithological phenomenon cannot be overstated. The discovery of an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, most likely from spontaneous regeneration, is the scientific event of the young century. It is such big news that researchers from all over the world are flying in to confirm and study this amazing bird. And that, perhaps, is the bad news. It is not clear what the future holds for this woodpecker. Most of those in charge want to capture it and take blood samples. If they fail to capture it, then the next step would be to "collect" the bird. I would rather not describe what collecting is.

The good news is that the state has bowed to pressure from birders and will take down the barricades to let the public view this bird, for one day only. A shuttle tram has been set up in the Shawme-Crowell State Park parking lot. The tram will take people to the bird's favorite hangout which is a giant kapok tree, the last tree of its kind found in Massachusetts. Tickets for the tram (only a dollar) are limited and can be purchased at the camp store, at the park entrance. The only requirement, besides the dollar ticket, is that everyone needs to be dressed in dark green. The officials are afraid that this highly territorial woodpecker might be scared off by any color other than neutral dark green. Anyone wishing to see the bird will be handed a dark green trash bag and will be required to wear it poncho-style while on the tram. Whoa! The tram will look more like it's taking a trip to the dump rather than taking birders to see the event of a lifetime.

If you want to see this bird, Kyle, I advise you to get there early. Tickets go on sale at 8 a.m., next Thursday, April 1.


Artwork by Catherine Clark



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