BRINKLEY, Ark. – This time of year, ducks flock by the hundreds to the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, where bands of white-tailed deer graze under a canopy of 1,000-year-old trees. Near a cypress swamp, the sun warms the autumn air, making this bottomland a paradise for wild turkeys, foraging squirrels and insects the size of kumquats.
Somewhere in the wilderness probably lives a bird – or birds – once thought extinct: the ivory-billed woodpecker, with its 30-inch wingspan and distinctive white stripes on a coal-black body.
When Cornell University ornithologists announced in April that the ivory-bill – the largest woodpecker in North America – had been rediscovered, bird lovers worldwide rejoiced.
And here in Monroe County, where one-quarter of residents live in poverty, merchants stocked up on bird-related souvenirs and waited for tourists.
But with fresh sightings of the ivory-bill yet to be confirmed, “We’re still waiting for the tourist part,” hairdresser Penny Childs said.
Outside her salon, woodpecker T-shirts hang from a tree, swinging in the breeze. Inside, nearly half of the establishment has been taken over with woodpecker souvenirs: candles, artwork, books. Childs, who has a smock embroidered with the nickname “Peckerwood Penny,” has created the $25 “woodpecker” haircut – a spiked hairdo accented with red, black and white paint.
“It’s like waiting for Christmas to get here,” Childs said of what residents hope will be a big winter bird-watching season.
Many in town don’t see how anything but good can come from the celebrity bird.
“If people want to come all the way out here to look for a woodpecker, we welcome them. Any time people come and spend money, that helps the town,” restaurant owner Gene DePriest said. DePriest, 69, has done his part, honoring the bird with an ivory-billed salad (chicken with sesame seeds) and an ivory-billed burger (served on a sesame bun). “The Bird is the Word,” a sign in his parking lot says.
Other nearby communities also have tried to make visitors feel welcome. Hunting lodges have expanded services to include canoe trips for birders. A Super 8 Hotel is now the Ivory-Bill Inn. Crews at the refuge have trimmed hanging branches to make way for tour buses. New signs detailing the markings of the ivory-bill – and of the similar but common pileated woodpecker – have been posted along birding trails.
All that’s needed now is another confirmed ivory-bill sighting and a photograph in sharp focus, Mallard said.
Not everyone is convinced that the bird exists, believing that the blurry video actually shows the pileated variety.
“It’s absolutely necessary to get a better video, a clear still shot, sightings that are irrefutable. If that were to happen or let’s say you found a roost tree, you’d see the kind of interest you’ve never seen before,” Mallard said. “It would show that Elvis is in the building.”