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Wednesday, 27 February 2008 00:00

The seach goes on

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For the past four years — five years total, if you count the magical, muddy, mystery tour in Louisiana back in 2002 — the devout, the convinced, the skeptical and the curious have slogged and paddled across the swamps of the Southeast in search of “Elvis.” That’s the code name given the ivory-billed woodpecker by searchers in Arkansas in 2004. Feeling constrained by the foot-sucking muck and the capricious currents of bayous, sloughs and slow southern rivers, searchers decided to take the high road during this year’s quixotic quest for the elusive Elvis.

According to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife spokesperson, the Feds are spending about $140,000 this year for historic helicopter flights designed to flush the clandestine creature from the canopy so it can be recorded by video. The Arkansas sorties are over, but whirlybirds continue to beat the skies above other bastions of biodiversity, like the Congaree swamp in South Carolina and perhaps the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle, where Auburn Ornithologist Geoff Hill estimated a couple of years ago that at least nine pairs of the iconic ivory-billed lived.

Helicopter searchers in Arkansas captured hundreds of glossies of beautiful birds like great blue herons, red-shouldered hawks and perhaps the largest — living — woodpecker in the U.S., the pileated. But, once again, Elvis eluded them.

Pileateds everywhere — striking birds in their own right — must be suffering severely from PTSD (Posttraumatic Snubbing Disorder) as intrepid ivory-billed searchers eschew and even vilify them for not being the — Lord God — bird. And we hear so often from those claiming close encounters of the avian kind — I knew it was too large to be a pileated.

The actual difference in size is only a few inches. In fact, there are some specimen collections that contain ivory-billeds smaller than some pileated specimens. Dr. Jerome Jackson of Florida Gulf Coast University, widely acclaimed as the world’s foremost authority on ivory-billed woodpeckers — at least while they were still extinct — shed some light on how this size difference would appear in the field, in a skeptical article he wrote for the Auk following the Arkansas rediscovery claims. “That’s about the difference between a yardstick and a metre stick. At 100 yards, could you tell the difference between a yardstick and a meter stick?” wrote Jackson.

This aerial onslaught comes on the heels of hundreds of thousands of man-hours coupled with hundreds of thousands of machine-hours — automatic recorders and cameras — expended over the last four (five, if you count Louisiana in 2002) years. The compiled results, to date, consist of some “interesting” recordings, some Bigfoot-quality video, lots of pileated glossies and the sporadic birder-sighting of black and white woodpeckers, “definitely too large to be pileateds.”

The faithful will forever see ivory-billeds just as the King’s idolaters flock to Graceland every year to pay homage. But a fool such as I, won’t be betting my blue suede shoes on anything more conclusive than a hunka-hunk of double knocks emanating from down at the end of lonely sloughs in heartbreak habitats.

I fear Elvis has left the swamp.

(Don Hendershot can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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