If a Woodpecker Could

Once or twice each year in my little corner of Washington, D.C. (the hotel-crowd-oriented Woodley Park area), I encounter our friendly neighborhood pileated woodpecker. He's hard to miss, being crow-sized where other woodpeckers don't grow much bigger than robins. When he flies, often crossing the Taft Bridge to get from one part of Rock Creek Park to the other, he seems to sink a few feet in the air after each wing flap, only to bounce back up again with the next one. He has a bright red head, just like Woody Woodpecker, the only known pileated woodpecker celebrity.

"No other living woodpecker could be confused with the pileated," the U.S. Geological Survey informs us. It must not have updated its Web site recently. The bigger and still more charismatic ivory-billed woodpecker, we learned on April 28, has been definitively spotted by bird-watching experts in Arkansas' Big Woods after more than 60 years without a confirmed sighting. Some bird guides had even stopped listing the ivory-billed, and it had become the icon of humanity's callous, wilderness-devouring arrogance and stupidity.

The manner of the revelation was truly modern. Everyone who wished, or at least everyone who had QuickTime, could download a blurry video of the ivory-billed, shot from a canoe as the bird darts from a tree trunk and away into a marshy forest. For birders willing to freeze the frames, the footage erased any suspicion that, as in so many times in the past, a mere pileated woodpecker had been mistaken for the mythic ivory-billed. I'm no expert, but even I could see from the video that the bird wasn't Woody. Perched on the trunk for a brief moment, it has a large patch of white on its back in the shape of a shield. The pileated's back, in contrast, is entirely black.

When the news emerged, some wag was quickly quoted as saying that the discovery was "kind of like finding Elvis." That doesn't really do it justice: For birders, Jesus Christ would be a much better analogy. You see, every birder has a Bible, and at least in older versions, each holy book contains a page, or half a page, describing the ivory-billed woodpecker. Some Scriptures even have a cruel checklist at the back where one could still tick off the ivory-billed, if only it actually existed and one were to actually see it. Birders are fanatical list makers, and that uncheckable box amounted to a hole in each of their hearts. Now, suddenly, there existed at least the possibility of completeness.

But then the guilt began to set in -- the guilt that any naturalist inevitably feels for adoring one endangered species more than all of the other ones, simply because it is deemed more heroic or charismatic by arbitrary humans. We have lost other birds in the past century in the United States, yet none do we lament like the ivory-billed woodpecker. If the extinct Bachman's warbler were suddenly to reappear in South Carolina, I doubt the story would make the front page of The Washington Post. Ditto for the Labrador duck, and definitely for the Eskimo curlew, although a return of the passenger pigeon would certainly draw some press.

The charisma problem -- the fact that humans arbitrarily value some creatures over others -- permeates attempts to rehabilitate endangered species in the United States. It fueled the dedication with which we fought to protect the spotted owl (a zeal hardly to be detected in defense of the slick spot peppergrass). It explains why we pat ourselves on the back so much to see populations of bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and brown pelicans rebounding. Meanwhile, a species that by all accounts ought to be deemed more than heroic enough to save -- the Florida panther, of which less than a hundred are left in the wild -- has been continually threatened by encroaching development and lax regulations based on poor data.

Indeed, the ivory-billed-woodpecker discovery even prompted some charismatic creature worship on the part of the Bush administration. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, who once argued that the Endangered Species Act was unconstitutional, sounded like a true defender of wildlife when she immediately released $10 million for a project to save the bird.

Meanwhile, Norton's underlings show little interest in the plight of endangered species. Craig Manson, the Interior Department official charged with Endangered Species Act enforcement, actually questioned last year, in an interview with Grist Magazine, the starkly obvious connection between human population growth and industrial activity and species extinctions. "It is a logical fallacy to suggest that because two things happen concurrently, that they are necessarily related, without further evidence," Manson stated.

And in another notorious incident, reported in The New York Times, Interior Department official Julie MacDonald defied the agency's career scientists on whether the threatened sage grouse needs (that's right) sagebrush to survive, writing, "they will eat other stuff if it's available." The department recently decided not to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

While the return of the ivory-billed woodpecker may make us all feel like a million bucks, then, it's much less clear that we really deserve that sense of elation.

Chris Mooney is a Prospect senior correspondent whose TAP Online column appears each week. His book on the politicization of science will be published in September by Basic Books. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.

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