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Ivory-billed woodpecker found "Cached Away".

They don't call it the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge for nothing! In this case, the precious cargo "cached away" was a species long thought to be extinct. The rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) in Arkansas, announced April 28, 2005, is one of the most memorable events in the history of the National Wildlife Refuge System and North American ornithology. As John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, put it, "This is really the most spectacular creature we could imagine rediscovering" (Lemoine 2005).

The ivory-billed woodpecker is the largest woodpecker species north of Mexico and the third largest in the world. It stands nearly 20 inches (50 centimeters) tall and has a wingspan of 30 inches (76 cm). This woodpecker has a lifespan approaching 15 years.

The ivory-bill was a natural denizen of old-growth forests in the southeastern United States and Cuba. It used its large bill to strip the bark from trees that had recently died, exposing the beetle larvae that served as its dietary staple. Recently dead trees are usually not found in high densities, so the somewhat nomadic woodpecker required extensive stands of old-growth forest.

The ivory-billed woodpecker was listed in 1967 as endangered. By then, it was already considered extirpated from the wild, except possibly in Cuba. The last confirmed sighting in the U.S. had been in 1944 in an area that is now part of the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Louisiana, about 175 miles (280 kilometers) south of the Cache River basin.

The current population of ivory-billed woodpeckers is unknown. Dennis Widner, manager of the Central Arkansas National Wildlife Refuge Complex (which includes Bald Knob, Big Lake, and Wapanocca national wildlife refuges in addition to Cache River), was the original manager at Cache River, beginning in 1987. Dennis hazards a guess that perhaps as many as 20 pairs occupy the bottomland hardwoods from Cache River south to (and probably including) the White River National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses almost 90 miles (145 km) of the White River in Arkansas down to the Mississippi River.

The Cache River Refuge currently consists of 61,000 acres (24,690 hectares), while the White River Refuge consists of 157,000 acres (63,538 ha). Both refuges, along with several state wildlife management areas, constitute a long habitat lifeline that Dennis describes as "the best of the best" of bottomland hardwoods remaining in the South. Nuttall oak (Quercus nuttallii) and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) seem to be the key ingredients of the woodpecker's habitat. Upon their death, these trees harbor the beetles that nourish the woodpeckers. Further into the decay process, oaks, sweetgum, and other big bottomland trees provide the cavities that serve as woodpecker nesting sites.

The reasons for the woodpecker's decline are fairly straightforward. In the 19th century, their ample white beaks made them a favorite in the display cases of wealthy collectors. Toward the end of the century, these birds and many others with fabulous feathers were killed for their plumage, which went to festoon the hats of high-fashion ladies. But the major cause of the woodpecker's decline, as with so many endangered species, was habitat loss. In the early part of the 20th century, the logging industry turned from the Midwest to the bald cypress and hardwood bottomlands of the South. Eventually, the conversion of these forests to agricultural production took a heavy toll on the ivory-billed woodpecker.

The history of the National Wildlife Refuge System is one of protecting remaining habitats and, when possible, restoring lost habitats. The refuges of central Arkansas are a classic example. The White River and Cache River refuges were established in 1935 and 1986, respectively, primarily for migratory birds. However, the mission of the Refuge System has evolved to include the maintenance and restoration of ecological integrity, including biodiversity conservation. The Cache River Refuge balances its traditional purposes with the evolving mission of the Refuge System. The bottomland hardwoods have always been outstanding wintering areas for mallards, wood ducks, and other waterfowl prized by hunters, as well as a host of other migratory birds that continue to flock to the central Arkansas refuges. Fortunately, Dennis Widner and his colleagues have been managing the refuges in a manner conducive to the woodpecker's survival by maintaining uneven-aged, old-growth forests and by restoring old agricultural lands to bottomland hardwood habitat. Now, with a new lease on the woodpecker's life, they can continue with renewed vigor and broad-based support.

The authorized acquisition boundary for Cache River Refuge encompasses 176,000 acres (71,230 ha), which means that 115,000 acres (46,540 ha), in addition to those acres already acquired, are approved for acquisition pending the landowners' willingness to sell. It is reasonable to assume that the protection of these lands will be gain new emphasis if we are to bring this great bird back from the brink of extinction.

Literature Cited

Lemoine, D. 2005. Woodpecker sighting encourages ornithologists. 2theAdvocate News, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. April 29, 2005.

Brian Czech is a conservation biologist in the Division of Natural Resources, National Wildlife Refuge System, at the Service's Arlington, Virginia, headquarters office. He can be reached at
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Author:Czech, Brian
Publication:Endangered Species Update
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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