Japery and Ivory

DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — You expect government to be naive sometimes, but some prominent research universities — that’s you, Cornell — treat animals like birdbrains. This week, they formally gave up on finding the ivory-billed woodpecker.

This was reported in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which for a half-decade has kept a special projects team just for hard-hitting reporting on scientists confirming the bird once considered extinct. (Proving that reports of newspapers going extinct need to be verified by science as well.) The article in Friday — the three paragraphs you can read without a subscription are sufficient because, well, you have me — would go on to note how this began in 2004 with a valid sighting.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is ending its funding of the project, $14 million so far. The administration of George W. Bush authorized the expenditure so it was a conservative use of tax money.

What Fish, Wildlife and Cornell forget is the intelligence of animals. This woodpecker species may not be rare, they’re just cleverer than we assume. Consider how often your pets outsmart you. We think of creatures as guided by instincts of food, mating and migration. While those are necessary — they’ve certainly stood me in good stead — ivory-bills successfully have avoided poachers, habitat developers and other idiots since the 19th century. After the turn of this century, maybe they got a little careless.

Scientists saw an ivory-bill some six times in 2004-05, but not since. Before disappearing, ivory-bill woodpeckers apparently wanted the last “Ha-ha-ha-HAA-ha.” A series of police reports in 2006 documents their path of mischief: Brick’s Birdberg Blotter.

I found these 14 news items from newspapers in towns so small they don’t have Wal-Marts, much less cell towers and the Internet. The 14 blotter briefs make slightly more sense when read from earliest up, Feb. 12 up to Feb. 25.

In 1982, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder recorded “Ebony and Ivory.” On muggy nights in the swamps of southern Arkansas, you can hear among the “kent-like” calls of either ivory-bills or bluejays a twee version of the hit pop song: “Japery and Ivory live together with some tension / Like keys dropped in bogs, here and there, don’t give it a mention.”

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