Bird of the Southern Wilderness

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker once ranged from east Texas to North Carolina, from southern Illinois through Florida, and south to Cuba. In the United States it dwelled primarily among swampy bottomland hardwood forests, preferring wilderness and the deep cover of old-growth woods, according to Cornell University researcher James Tanner who studied the bird in the 1930s.

In 2004, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was discovered in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in the Big Woods region of Arkansas. At 550,000 acres, the Big Woods is the largest corridor of bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the Mississippi Delta north of the Atchafalaya River. The Big Woods encompasses Arkansas’ remnant floodplain forests lining the Mississippi, White, and lower Arkansas rivers, as well as the Cache River and its main tributary, Bayou de View.

Today, less than 10 percent of Arkansas’ original 8 million acres of forested wetlands remain. From above, these forests are seen to line the rivers and watercourses of the Big Woods, surrounded by a vast sea of agricultural fields. The presence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Big Woods has galvanized efforts to save remaining habitats critical to the continued survival of this endangered species.

Floodwaters fanning out across the floodplain over millennia built rich, wet soils on which an immense forest took root--"the big woods," as William Faulkner called it, inhabited by wolves, panthers, bears, waterfowl, and songbirds. These forested wetlands of tupelo, bald cypress, oak, and hickory blanketed 24 million acres of the delta, interlaced with bayous, rivers, oxbow lakes, and sandy ridges.

But in less than 200 years, that 24 million acres of forest in the Mississippi Delta had been reduced to some 4.4 million scattered acres, cut over for valuable timber and to make way for agriculture. As the rivers were contained behind levees and dams, the floodplain was cut off from the waters that had nourished the forests, and trees could not regenerate in the drier soils. Some animals went extinct, as many believed the ivory-bill had. Others such as the wolf and panther were extirpated from their native delta territory and now struggle to survive in isolated pockets elsewhere in the Southeast.

Large blocks of forest are rare in the Mississippi Delta today. Instead, patches of forest stand as small "islands" isolated from other forest patches. As forests are broken into smaller fragments, the number of animals and plants that can survive there decreases. Water quality is also an issue, as sediments, fertilizers and pesticides wash off cultivated fields with no streamside forest to trap and filter them.