The Holy Grail Bird

When he was 15 years old, Bobby Harrison read an article in Science World Magazine. The article introduced him to the tantalizing mystery of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.

Two years later, a Life Magazine article by photographer John Dennis reported the elusive bird was spotted in Texas.

"I wanted to quit high school right then, go to Texas and take a picture of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker," says Harrison. "But my parents had other ideas."

Harrison wasn't alone. That 1972 Life Magazine article created a generation of Ivory Billed Woodpecker hunters. And those hunters, forgive the pun, have come home to roost in the last three years, reenergizing the hunt for the elusive species.

After a series of amateur sightings, Harrison, who grew up to become a bird photographer, along with Tim Gallagher, editor and chief of Living Bird magazine, reported a sighting in Arkanasas in 2004 that brought the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker into the national concsiousness and brought the debate to the forefront of the ornithological community.

A Century-old Avian Mystery

The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker was first thought extinct at the turn of the 20th Century.

The bird thrived in its heavily wooded habitat in the Southeastern United States. However, extensive logging in the region led to the rapid destruction of the Ivory-Billed population.

Confirmed sightings in the 1930s produced the first studies of the species, but by 1950, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker was once again believed to be extinct.

The elusiveness of the species has created an enormous interest among bird lovers throughout the years. Numerous amateur sighting were discounted throughout the second half of the 20th century, but recent years have brought more prevalent sightings and increased interest.

As more researchers have devoted time and resources to hunting for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, the evidence has mounted.

Still, the "smoking gun," a clear, undisputed photo of "the King" is yet to be taken. Until it is, the debate will rage on.

Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology
This painting, probably the most famous image of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, was done by naturalist John G. Audubon in the 19th Century.

Mark Gofrey/The Nature Coservancy
Wearing camouflage, Bobby Harrison, Oakwood College associate professor, searches for ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas. March 2005.