Sixty years after its last confirmed U.S. sighting, the ivory-billed woodpecker has shown up in an Arkansas swamp, much to the delight of birders and conservationists alike. Hot Springs, Arkansas resident Gene Sparling reported the first recent sighting of the bird in February 2004 after canoeing through a bald cypress swamp in the Big Woods Preserve, which is already owned and protected by the Nature Conservancy. Upon word of the sighting, two of the country's most renowned ornithologists, Tim Gallagher of Cornell and Bobby Harrison of Alabama's Oakwood College, flew to the area for a tour with Sparling, only to see the assumed-extinct bird for themselves. A few months later a University of Arkansas graduate student videotaped the elusive bird taking off from a tree trunk, giving doubting Thomases all the proof they would need that the sightings were not a hoax.
The bird's demise is linked to the extensive logging that took place across the southeastern U.S.—decimating prime habitat for woodpeckers and thousands of other wildlife species—during the early part of the 20th century. Conservationists have long viewed the extinction of the magnificent ivory-billed woodpecker, dubbed Lord God Bird by some awed observers, as a symbol of the despoliation of the natural environment, but today they hope to use the bird as a symbol of hope in efforts to restore landscapes across the Southeast and beyond.
The Nature Conservancy is already hatching plans with local and federal officials to expand the Big Woods Preserve so as to protect a larger portion of habitat to facilitate the recovery of the woodpecker. According to the group, the area was once the largest expanse of forested wetlands in the country, originally consisting of 21 million acres of bottomland hardwood forests. Today, only 4.9 million acres remain, mostly in scattered woodland patches.