“Have any of you actually seen an ivory-bill?”
Matt Courtman posed his question to a packed room at the Black Bayou Lake NWR Visitors’ Center. It was the educational portion of the 1st Quarter Meeting of Louisiana Master Naturalists – Northeast.
One hand went up. One man in attendance believed he had. He described the bird he had seen and guessed it to be about a third larger than a crow.
To put his assertion into perspective, it is not like claiming to have seen sasquatch, the Loch Ness monster or a Yeti. It is more like claiming to have seen a live Passenger Pigeon, but more likely to be true. The doomed pigeon flew in great flocks in plain sight, so survivors would be easily detected.
In contrast, the ivory-billed woodpecker was solitary and a deep forest dweller. It had the habit of appearing suddenly and startling people, and for that reason was nick-named “the Lord God Bird.” If only a few survive today, locating them would require patience, persistence and a lot of searching.
And if they are to be found, Matt Courtman is the most likely person to find them. His presentation to LMN–NE was informed by extensive research into museum collections, books, scientific journals and personal accounts, and he has spent hours in the field.
He is convinced that he has seen ivory-bills on a couple of occasions, and he has a recording he believes to be the call of ivory-bills. Blue jay calls are sometimes confused with ivory-bill calls, but Matt enlisted an opera singer to help him describe the difference in sound characteristics between the two. The ivory-bill call is more “sonorous.”
The ivory-bill has long been believed to be extinct due to loss of habitat, specifically the lumbering of virgin hardwood forests. The Singer Tract in what is now the Tensas River NWR was one of the last refuges of ivory-bills and Ranger Jesse Laird was their protector.
Jesse’s great-granddaughter Suzanne Laird-Dartez, a Master Naturalist and member of the LMN–NE Board, brought a human element into Matt’s presentation by telling of her great-grandfather’s passion for conservation and the ivory-bill. He was monitoring the last known survivor, a female, checking on her daily. Then a storm blew down the tree that held her nest cavity and she was never seen again.
Matt Courtman is working on a website for his ivory-bill project. He strongly believes the bird was more adaptable in terms of habitat that the literature indicates. And so he searches on, expecting one day to document with incontrovertible evidence a living ivory-bill. We’ll be the first to report it here!
Our 2nd Quarter meeting is scheduled at 2 p.m., May 3, at Black Bayou Lake NWR Visitor Center. Stuart Hodnett of Ouachita Green will be our speaker.
Story and photos by Charles Paxton.