Stallings combing the Delta for the ivory-billed woodpecker

By William Browning, News Editor
Recreated with the permission of The Greenwood Commonwealth
Friday, January 4, 2008

Jim Stallings is combing Delta forests trying to find a strikingly sleek, smooth, powerful bird that no human eye has officially seen in more than 60 years.

"When I'm deer hunting, instead of hunting deer I'm sitting there looking for that bird," the 49-year-old Greenwood native said in a tone that half mocked his new passion.

Stallings admits that he wasn't looking for the fabled, elusive ivory-billed woodpecker 20 years ago, "but had I known about it, I probably would have been."

It's been an endangered species since 1967. The last authentic documented sighting came out of northwestern Louisiana in 1944. Some scientists fear that the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct. Others hold out hope.

"Some people believe that there may be a few left," said Nick Winstead, an ornithologist with the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson. "Some people think they're out there lingering in scattered areas."

In some circles, the bird has attained Elvis-like status. Each year, reports of a sighting bob to the surface, though none have been verified. Even a 2004 sighting in Arkansas that came with a four-second video failed to trigger across-the-board acceptance of its existence; it only stoked the verve of amateur bird watchers and scientists alike.

"It is certainly a very compelling piece of evidence," Dr. Martjan Lammertink, an ornithologist at Cornell University, said of the footage. Many consider Lammertink, 36, the world's leading expert on large woodpeckers. "Since then there have been a lot of follow-up searches. And people are fanning out those searches."

Count Stallings, who is working toward a degree in sociology at Delta State University, as one of the ivory-billed woodpeckers' new devotees.

"I grew up in the outdoors," said Stallings, who retired from the United States Air Force in 2005 after 22 years of service. "But for a long time I didn't know that much about birds. I knew they flew and that you shoot ducks. That was it."

But when he enrolled in Dr. Mark Bonta's "Environmental History of the Delta" geography course, all that changed.

"We had to do a research paper, and it was between doing mine on water conservation or these birds," Stallings said. "I could have done it on water conservation and been done with it. That would have been easy. But I thought about it and decided that it was time to tackle something that everybody would benefit from."

According to Winstead, Stallings' decision to focus his search in the Delta is as good as any.

"Certainly in the past, the Delta would have been a prime habitat for them," said Winstead, 28. "The birds needed large patches of forests where dead wood could be found."

The birds could find the larvae of wood beetles, their chief food source, in dead wood - "but after colonization, most of that habitat was eliminated," he said.

Winstead added that the stretch of land between the two levees on the Mississippi River offers locations that the bird could possibly frequent.

"Every time I go out looking for it, I want to go more and more," Stallings said. "Yeah, you could say I'm hooked."

Stallings' quasi-obsession with the woodpecker, which averages a 30-inch wingspan and 20-inch-long body, doesn't surprise Lammertink.

"It is an absolutely stunning bird," said Lammertink, who in 2007 marched a mobile search team across five Southeastern states in search of the bird. "It is the biggest North American woodpecker; a powerful, fine, graceful animal; awe-inspiring. That is definitely part of the appeal."

Another appeal, Lammertink said, is that the bird is near extinction. Still there is a glimmer of hope that some remain.

For the past three weeks Stallings has been loading up his gear, heading into Delta forests and praying to see - or at least hear the distinctive "double-knock" of - an ivory billed woodpecker.

To remind himself how the bird's distinctive knock sounds, Stallings carries with him a 1935 recording made in deep-woods Louisiana by Arthur Allen, who was head of the Cornell ornithology lab.

So far, Stallings' search has led him through Morgan's Brake, Tallahatchie County, Dahomey, Malmaison, Delta National Park, Panther Swamp, Anderson Tully, Mahannah and St. Catherine Creek. Down the road, he plans to branch out through the Desoto National Forest, the Pascagoula River and the Bogue Chitto River.

"Just to know that the bird is alive and continues to live, that would be enough for me," Stallings said, admitting that he hasn't had any luck so far. "Maybe it will be me who finds it; maybe it will be someone else. I don't care. Just having it back would be enough."

Winstead, who has worked for the Museum of Natural Science for three years, was a bit more candid.

"It would be very cool if he could find one."