The expedition to the rugged timber country in northeastern Cuba’s Guantànamo Province was nearing its last day, and Dr. Lester Short had yet to spot his elusive quarry up close. Short, 52, chairman of the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, had come at the invitation of Cuban biologists to help confirm their sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a large, handsome bird that had not been seen for more than three decades in its native North America, where many experts had labeled it extinct. After almost 750 eye-aching hours of scrutinizing the bush, Short’s party had caught only fleeting glimpses of the shy bird. “Having seen it only from a distance,” Short says, “I couldn’t help asking myself, ‘Was that really it?’ ” Then, on April 16, he was creeping through undergrowth when a whirring of wings brought him pivoting around. Pursued by a crow, a crimson-crested male ivory-bill flashed toward him to within 18 feet, then veered away and flew out of sight. “I said to myself, ‘My God, there it is,’ ” he remembers.
Reported by radio, TV and newspapers, word of the sightings thrilled Cubans. “Everybody we met knew about the woodpecker, even the hotel maids,” says Short’s wife, Jennifer Home, 54, a Kenyan citizen and expert in animal communication. She also spotted the ivory-bills, one male and one female—possibly two females. The government immediately banned logging in the area, where timber cutting had decimated the old pine trees from which the ivory-bill pecks out beetle larvae for food.
In the early 19th century John James Audubon heard the ivory-bill’s trumpet-like toot during a trip down the Mississippi, but lumbering and hunting eventually drove the bird from its home in the deep forests of the southeastern U.S., where the last confirmed sighting was in 1941. With shiny black-and-white-striped plumage, white-tipped wings and pale-ivory-hued beak, the ivory-bill can be more than 20 inches long and live up to 30 years. Last January the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department wanted to declare the ivory-bill extinct, but ornithologists refused to go along, since some believe a few birds may survive in the U.S.
For Short, enthralled with bird-watching since seeing his first blue jay at 6, and Home, who as a child was taken on nature walks by her father, a British surgeon in Kenya, sighting the ivory-bill brought an exhilaration as rare as the bird itself. Although the Cuban ivory-bill’s cheek markings differ slightly from those of the North American variety, the sightings have raised hopes that the birds might be reintroduced to the U.S. in 20 years or so. But most species require a population of 500 to keep breeding, and Short’s expedition could confirm only the three birds. So, whither the woodpecker? “One hurricane could wipe them out,” warns Short. “Their chances of survival are on the narrow side, regardless of what is done.”