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"Extinct" Woodpecker Found in Arkansas, Experts Say

James Owen
for National Geographic News
April 28, 2005
 
For 50 years the ivory-billed woodpecker has been widely considered
extinct. But the Elvis of the bird-watching world is alive in eastern
Arkansas, bird experts announced today. (href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/video/asx/woodpecker.asx"
target="_new">Watch a video on the discovery from the Nature
Conservancy [requires href="http://www.nationalgeographic.com/download/windowsmedia"
target="_new">Windows Media Player].)

Ornithologists
reported the bird's rediscovery in a remote area of wetland
forest.

The discovery "is huge, just huge," said Frank Gill,
senior ornithologist at the New York City-based National Audubon
Society. "It is kind of like finding Elvis."

"Through the 20th
century it's been every birder's fantasy to catch a glimpse of this
bird, however remote the possibility," added John W. Fitzpatrick,
director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. "This
really is the holy grail."

Among the world's largest
woodpeckers, the ivory-bill is one of six North American bird species
suspected or known to have gone extinct since 1880. The last conclusive
sighting of the woodpecker was in Louisiana in 1944.

The black-and-
white bird's disappearance followed extensive logging in the
southeastern U.S., which decimated the woodpecker's habitat of mature
virgin forests.

Since then this charismatic species has become
the Elvis of the bird world, with whisperings over the years that it
might still be alive in some secret hideaway. Experts remained highly
skeptical. That is, until now.

Eight independent sightings have
been reported since early 2004 in the Big Woods region of eastern
Arkansas, a 550,000-acre (220,000- hectare) corridor of swamps and
floodplain forests. The reports all came within two miles (three
kilometers) of one another.

Key features of the sighted birds,
including size and markings, all point to the long-lost woodpecker,
according to Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick headed a team that
assessed the woodpecker sightings. Their findings will be published in
the journal Science.

First Sighting

The
first report came in February 2004, when a kayaker spotted what's
described as "an unusually large, red-crested woodpecker flying towards
him and landing near the base of a tree 20 meters [about 22 yards]
away."

"He noticed enough of the markings to suspect it was an
ivory-billed woodpecker," Fitzpatrick said.

At least seven
further visual encounters occurred over the next year. Crucially, one
sighting was captured on video. "It's a pretty crumby video, yet
remarkable and historic," Fitzpatrick added. "It had all the necessary
ingredients for a definitive identification."

Though the images
are fleeting and blurred, extensive analysis of the video by Fitzpatrick
and his team revealed the telltale features of an ivory-bill:


• The bird's size matched the species's estimated 19.5-inch
(50-centimeter) length, from beak to tail tip. The length of the tail
was particularly revealing.

• The bird's wing patterns,
both at rest and in flight, had the black-and-white markings
characteristic of an ivory-billed woodpecker.

• The bird's
back had a conspicuous area of white plumage.

Fitzpatrick says
these key markers clearly distinguish the bird from the smaller but similar-
looking pileated woodpecker. Previous unconfirmed reports of ivory-
billed woodpeckers in the southern U.S. were considered highly suspect
by experts, because pileated woodpeckers are widespread in the region.


So far the presence of only a single ivory-bill male can be
confirmed. "We cannot rule out the possibility that all of our fleeting
encounters involved the same bird," Fitzpatrick said.

However,
he believes other ivory-bills are almost certainly out there. He says
the difficulty in detecting them may be due to the bird's extremely low
population density. The last known population of ivory-bills, in
northeastern Louisiana, had a density of one pair per 6 square miles (16
square kilometers) of forest.

"This discovery raises the
possibility that there are other places where this bird persisted
through ... the 20th century," Fitzpatrick added.

Once
Widespread


Until the 1870s the ivory-bill was widespread,
though uncommon, in lowland primary forests of the southeastern U.S. (href="
http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/flashback/0410/index.html">See a
1938 picture of an ivory-bill on a man's head.) The bird strips the
bark off dying trees with its powerful beak to get to insect grubs
beneath.

The bird's disappearance coincided with extensive
logging throughout the region, which continued up to the 1940s.


Hunting by professional collectors accelerated the extinction of
remaining populations until the bird was given up as extinct. The last
documented ivory-bill was seen over logged forestland in 1944.


A subspecies of the woodpecker may have survived in Cuba. Experts
reported brief sightings of at least two individuals in 1986 and 1987.
However, subsequent efforts to confirm the existence of this population
failed.

Even if few breeding pairs survive in the Big Woods of
Arkansas, the study team says that prospects for population growth look
good. Additions to the publicly owned wildlife refuge lands and habitat-
restoration efforts are reestablishing the mature hardwood forests in
the area.

Currently about a hundred thousand acres (40,470
hectares) of the Big Woods are protected and conserved, according to
Scott Simon, director of the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas. There is a
plan to conserve and restore an additional 200,000 acres (80,940
hectares) of critical habitat over the next ten years, Simon added.


Fitzpatrick, the Cornell University ornithologist, said, "The
bottomland [or floodplain] forests are growing back, so there are places
with 4- and 5-foot-diameter [1.2- and 1.5-meter-diameter] trees again,
including those that are beginning to die as they get to a mature
stature. That's the kind of forest that ivory-bills need.

"The conditions are only going to get better," he added, "so it's possible that the worst for this bird is past, and with proper management these forests could support growing populations again."

Fitzpatrick sees the ivory-bill as a powerful symbol of the forests of the Deep South. "The lure of the wild and the lure of the beauty of birds and the lure of the mysterious-and-possibly-gone is enveloped in the idea of this bird."

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