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Rediscovered Woodpecker Still Extinct? Experts Dispute Find

James Owen
for National Geographic News
July 26, 2005
 
When experts announced last April that an ivory-billed woodpecker was
living in Arkansas, the discovery was hailed as the birding-world
equivalent of finding Elvis alive.

So perhaps it isn't surprising that the fabled bird's rediscovery, 60 years after the last confirmed sighting, is now being questioned. After all, few would expect reports that Elvis is alive and well to go unchallenged, however credible the source.

A trio of skeptics is voicing doubts over the identification of an ivory-bill. Among them is Jerome A. Jackson, a zoologist at Florida Gulf Coast University and the author of the book In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.

Last week Jackson told the New York Times that the evidence presented earlier this year in the journal Science suggests only "the possibility" of the presence of an ivory-bill in the swampy Big Woods region of eastern Arkansans.

The 550,000-acre (220,000-hectare) corridor of forested swamps and floodplain drains into the Mississippi River watershed.

The New York Times report notwithstanding, experts on both sides of the ornithological debate have declined to discuss details of the challenge until they are published in an as-yet-unnamed scientific journal. Publication is expected within the next month.

The last confirmed report of the black-and-white woodpecker occurred in 1944 in Louisiana. Since then the ivory-bill has been seen as the holy grail for U.S. birders.

Many experts believed the species had gone extinct after extensive logging of its critical habitat of mature virgin forests in the southeastern United States.

Video Footage

In April researchers made the announcement that the ivory-bill had been rediscovered. (See "'Extinct' Woodpecker Found in Arkansas, Experts Say.") They founded their claim on exhaustive analysis of grainy video footage of a woodpecker taken last year.

The researchers, led by John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, also reported seven other sightings in the area.

But three experts, led by Richard Prum of Yale University, are now reportedly challenging that claim using the same video evidence. The trio are said to argue that the bird shown is actually a pileated woodpecker, a much smaller but otherwise similar-looking species.

Fitzpatrick says his team isn't surprised by the nay-saying.

"Scrutiny of evidence is a natural and desirable process in science," he told National Geographic News. "The video is blurry and imperfect, so from the beginning we anticipated that debate might take place about the identity of the bird."

Fitzpatrick says he remains fully convinced that at least one ivory-bill was present in the study area in 2004 and early 2005. He adds that the team is following up on a number of new reported sightings.

"What everyone agrees on is that we need more information," Fitzpatrick added. "We will be working again intensively the Big Woods this fall, winter, and the coming spring."

Nature Conservancy

Fitzpatrick's sentiments are echoed by the Nature Conservancy (TNC), an international land-conservation nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia. TNC is closely involved in protecting and restoring habitat in the Big Woods region.

"News of the ivory-bill's existence earlier this spring was one of the biggest scientific announcements in decades," said TNC spokesperson Karen Foerstel. "We expected people to be skeptical of the announcement."

"We and our partners stand by scientific evidence showing the ivory-bill still lives, and we are moving forward with our land-management and search plans."

The search for further evidence of the ivory-bill's existence will resume this fall, when reduced leaf cover and lower temperatures should assist researchers.

Since the search for the bird first began, a further 18,000 acres (7,300 hectares) of potential ivory-bill habitat has been protected. There are plans to conserve and restore an additional 200,000 acres (80,000 hectares) over the next ten years.

Along with the ivory-bill, Foerstel says eight other species listed as threatened or endangered by the U.S. government rely on the Big Woods for survival.

"The Big Woods is and will remain a priority for the Nature Conservancy," she said.

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