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Lord God! Good news 

Rare woodpecker gives science, struggling towns, new hope.

STILL FLYING? The ivory-bill, in 1935 photo.
  • STILL FLYING? The ivory-bill, in 1935 photo.

Somewhere in the Big Woods of Eastern Arkansas, a large but wary woodpecker tours its shady, swampy home. He's indifferent to the “60 Minutes” helicopter that's flying overhead, giving a TV cameraman what he thinks is a brief glimpse. Oblivious to the shock, tears, worry and thrill he's caused, to the $35 million spent or pledged so far for the good of his neighborhood.

That the “Lord God bird,” a woodpecker science had given up on, which didn't even make it into the birders' Bible's Book of Sibley, is not extinct after all is an idea that still pecks away at the hearts and minds of the lucky seven who saw him and their less fortunate colleagues. But unless a host of scientists from Arkansas, the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology and nine other universities, and the editors of the prestigious journal Science, have all gone completely bonkers, a species not seen in Arkansas for a century, whose North American number was reckoned 60 years ago at only 22, a picky woodpecker whose chosen habitat of swampy, old-growth woods has been virtually eliminated, was zipping about the Bayou DeView in Monroe County at least as recently as Valentine's Day.

Science doesn't know where in the woods he was born, whether his parents still live, whether the half-million acres in east Arkansas called the Big Woods might harbor a mate for him — or whether our most famous new resident is the last of his kind, a dead bird walking.

But apparently at least six generations of ivory-billed woodpeckers cheated extinction, survived the leanest times in the Southeastern woods, and produced Elvis, a male bird seen, heard, and, by the grace of God, videotaped. He has not left the building.

Poet Wallace Stevens' “Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird” is about the vagaries of perception. This story is about how we see things, too. And so: “Thirteen ways of looking at an ivory-billed woodpecker.”

1. Quizzically.

Not everyone gets all the fuss over the bird. Why such jubilation? Why did grown men and women weep at the news, put on page 1 coast to coast? Why would the federal government offer $10 million that could go to the humans in the Delta to woodpecker habitat instead? Why would a philanthropist privately lend the Arkansas field office of The Nature Conservancy up to $20 million at no interest?

Gov. Mike Huckabee praised the bird as possible boon to tourism, but warned that extraordinary efforts to protect him might harm the “ecobalance” forged with farming, logging and hunting to date. Little Rock radio personality Tommy Smith and local sages who vent on the on-line “Briefing Notebook” blasted the federal dollar commitment. Southern Bancorp CEO Phil Baldwin, who works with the Walton Foundation to fund projects in the Delta, expressed irritation that the government would “fund an almost extinct bird but we won't fund our own citizens” (an odd reaction coming, as it did, from someone who observed three years ago that “some $40 billion in public funds has been poured into the Delta to fight these problems, but there's relatively little to show for it”).

Elvis' fans say what's good for the woodpecker is good for the people; people wanting to get a gander will need to hotels to sleep in and restaurants to feed them when they hit the Delta next fall. Dozens of small entrepreneurs have sprung up in Monroe County and surrounds to hawk ivory-bill ball caps, T-shirts, paintings, wooden cutouts, swamp trips. Gene's Barbecue in Brinkley sells “Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Cheeseburgers” and “Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Salads.” (“Tastes just like pileated!” as the on-line jokes say.)

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