It is not often that Iggy Pop, Pete Seeger, and the ivory-billed woodpecker can all be considered in the same breath. But when Steve Latta and Mark Michaels teamed up in 2019 to search for the iconic bird—which many assumed was extinct—they were surprised to find themselves comparing notes from the Detroit and Ann Arbor punk scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

An Ann Arbor native, Steve pogoed around the scene as a teenager and later as a young community activist. At some point, he may even have bumped into Mark, a New York native and high-school habitue of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. As a U-M undergrad, Mark led a band called the Relaxors, opening for Johnny Thunders’ and Wayne Kramer’s Gang War, Nikki and the Corvettes, and other local acts.

Steve is now director of conservation and field research at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, while Mark is a research associate with the Aviary. Since 2019, they have led a team conducting fieldwork in Louisiana, searching for evidence of surviving ivorybills. (Because of the endangered status of the species and ongoing research concerns, they aren’t saying where.)

Mark brought years of previous search experience to the team and a familiarity with the core search area. Steve brought experience in formal research design,
expanded resources, and new connections to academia. They met in February 2019, when they arrived to deploy remote recording devices in the swampy bottomlands that are the heart of the project’s “hot zone.” 

Skilled, reliable observers had reported more than a dozen fleeting glimpses of ivorybills and recorded enticing “kent calls (likened to the sound of a toy trumpet) during past forays in the area. But because the sounds can be confused with those of other species, the recordings were unlikely to be persuasive. Neither were the sightings without photographic authentication.

As they made their way through the flooded forests and got to know each other, they soon discovered their shared musical past. As Steve says, “There’s no place like a Louisiana bottomland to relive a Stooges concert!”

Just before midday, when talk had shifted toward folk—an older point of shared musical backstory—they paused momentarily over a Pete Seeger memory. Then, Steve recalls, “I happened to turn my head perhaps a quarter turn and caught sight of a large bird flying away … with a remarkably full view of the bird from wingtip to wingtip. I froze, fixated on the steady flapping as the bird gently angled upward, instantly knowing that I needed to note and remember every detail of this bird I had never seen before.” 

There had been no generally accepted or confirmed reports of an ivorybill since 1944. But the large size of the bird, the brilliant (almost unnaturally bright) white trailing edge along the bottom of the wing, and the tell-tale upward swoop of a woodpecker as it lands on a tree trunk left no doubt in Steve’s mind that it was an ivory-billed woodpecker. 

The recognition of its uniqueness, sacredness, and mystery predates European contact. An icon of American conservation, it’s sometimes called the “ghost” or “grail” bird for its rarity and ability to evade cameras, binoculars, and recorders.

Steve and Mark are serious and sober researchers, but the context of this encounter was astonishing. The discovery of their shared roots in Ann Arbor and mutual admiration for punk music and Pete Seeger added an uncanny quality to the sighting. 

The vision left Steve literally shaking, but with a newfound sense of responsibility that kept him up for nights and shook him to his core. Knowing how very few people had witnessed what he was lucky enough to see, and knowing without a doubt that the woodpecker did indeed survive, he felt it was his responsibility to help protect ivorybills and their habitat for the future.

For the next three years, using trail cameras, drones, and other field techniques, the two researchers obtained photos and videos that they believe definitively document the presence of as many as three of these iconic birds. In April, along with eight coauthors, they published the results to date of their research on the preprint server with a paper titled, “Multiple lines of evidence indicate survival of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana.” 

Just last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the ivorybill as extinct, so their message that they are still with us has resonated with conservationists and music fans alike. As one Arkansas-based ivorybill aficionado emailed, “It is heartening to know of a group of generous individuals who have dedicated so much to preserve some of the natural world. It is also cool to know that two of this group’s members are Stooges fans!  I turned 16 years old in 1977, the same year that I discovered the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Patti Smith Group, and the Stooges. Please keep up the great work!”

In fact, the identification with the punk scene may go far beyond a couple of Ann Arborites and the city’s claims to Iggy Pop, the Stooges, and the MC5. Looking for the ivory-billed woodpecker might be seen as the ultimate expression of punk: fieldwork undertaken by ardent and earnest searchers, people with diverse backgrounds who have built a community around one core belief: the ivory-billed woodpecker is out there.

A routine day in the field involves setting up GPS devices to avoid getting lost while traversing the flooded expanse of the bottomland. Searchers carry tools to handle encounters with any number of venomous snakes slithering through the waters, and stumbling across an alligator would not be unexpected. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s an experience as exhilarating as the opening riff of “Kick Out the Jams.”

With its DIY ethos, hard-edged expeditions through the toughest environs, and the independent, stripped-down approach to field work and publicity, Steve and Mark believe their team of ivorybill searchers have proven themselves to be, well, pretty hardcore. Now, with the publication of their findings, they’re singing their own version of “Raw Power”—and hoping that the ivory-billed woodpecker and wildlife in the bottomlands reap the benefits.