Hunt begins for rare woodpecker
Ivory-billed birds may be in Cuba
By Mike Clary. South Florida
Posted April 28 2006.
HAVANA · Cuban ornithologists have
received permission to search for the long-lost,
ivory-billed woodpecker in heavily wooded
areas of the island that have been off-limits
even to scientists since Fidel Castro seized
power here almost 50 years ago. Backed by
a grant from Birdlife International, a British
conservation group, the search began in
the pine forests of the Sierra Maestra mountains
of eastern Cuba this week.
"I believe the bird is here,"
said Arturo Kirkconnell, co-author of the
Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba and one
of the island's top researchers. "We
have a chance now to go to areas never visited
before. The habitat is ideal, and there
has been no evidence that the woodpecker
is not there."
The reason that some remote areas of Guantanamo
province, in the eastern end of the island,
and in Pinar del Rio, to the west of Havana,
are now open for scientific exploration
are not exactly clear, even to the scientists
Outsiders familiar with the project suggest
the reasons for earlier prohibitions may
be a combination of state security and bureaucratic
"The Sierra Maestra has variously
been shut off over the past three or four
years," said David Wege, Caribbean
program manager for Birdlife International.
"From outside a closed administration,
it's rather a fickle thing."
The launch of a hunt for the ivory-billed
woodpecker here comes two years after the
giant bird, believed to be extinct in the
United States for some 60 years, was rediscovered
in Arkansas. That news, announced by the
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in April
2005, triggered a continuing scouring of
50,000 acres of cypress forest and a wave
of international publicity.
In Cuba, where the struggle for the necessities
of daily life is paramount, a mission to
find a reclusive bird, no matter how colorful,
is unlikely to generate as much excitement.
But verifying the existence of the woodpecker
could prove to be a feather in the cap of
a nation hoping to improve its world standing
in the area of environmental protection.
"There is huge potential for the bird
to be there, in vast forests that are poorly
known," said Wege. "That's why
we're putting money in there."
Eduardo Inigo-Elias, an ornithologist at
Cornell University, which is heading the
Arkansas search, said Cuba has less acreage
suitable for the woodpecker than does the
United States. Still, said Inigo-Elias,
"Cuba does have 600 protected areas,
and we are happy they are looking for it.
"I hope one day they will communicate
to the world, 'We've got it!'"
Once common in old growth forests of the
southern United States and Cuba, the ivory-billed
woodpecker has a spectacular 30-inch wingspan,
a red top-knot and a mystique that has made
it the Holy Grail of birders. The last universally
accepted photograph of the bird was taken
in Cuba in 1948.
But since then, the bird reportedly has
been sighted by experts many times, in the
United States and Cuba. The last reliable
sighting in Cuba was made in Guantanamo
province in 1986 by Lester Short, then chairman
of ornithology at the American Museum of
Natural History in New York.
But Kirkconnell, 46, a curator at Cuba's
National Museum of Natural History, is certain
that he has heard the woodpecker's distinctive
double-knock, most recently in 1999 in Pinar
del Rio. He also said he has collected reliable
reports of woodpecker sightings from forest
guards in the Sierra Maestra mountains in
Mike Clary can be reached at email@example.com.