"Extinct" Woodpecker Still Elusive, But Signs Are Good

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
February 20, 2002

The search for the ivory-billed woodpecker is over, with no sightings of the elusive bird, but lots of hope.

A team of six internationally known birders combed the forests, bayous, and swamps of the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area in southeast Louisiana for 30 days in the hope of finding and photographing the bird.

The ivorybill has been thought to be extinct for the last 50 years. But unconfirmed sightings have intrigued scientists for years, and in 1999 a forestry student reported spotting the bird.

Ornithologists at Louisiana State University (LSU) deemed the report highly credible, so Zeiss Sports Optics agreed to sponsor an intensive search for the bird in the 35,000-acre (14,165-hectare) forest. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' Natural Heritage Program, LSU, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Ornithology Lab of Cornell University also participated in the search.

"There were three potential outcomes of the 30-day search," said Van Remsen, an ornithologist at Louisiana State University and curator of birds at its Museum of Natural Science. "We could find nothing, in which case the search is over. We could find the bird. Or, the most tantalizing, we could find evidence that the bird might be here.

"It's not only like looking for a needle in a haystack, it's looking for a needle that is moving," he said.

Now, the question of whether the ivorybill is alive and well in the swampy forests of Louisiana has been answered with a resounding chorus of "might be," "maybe," and "definitely a possibility."

Promising Evidence

Although no one on the team actually spotted the bird, the searchers said they found promising evidence in an area they came to refer to as the "hot zone."

On the afternoon of January 27, ten days after the search started, four members of the team heard and recorded a distinctive tapping pattern that sounded very different from that of the common pileated woodpecker that inhabits the swamps. The signal consisted of four double raps, separated by 20 to 30 seconds, followed by a single rap, followed by four consecutive raps.

The sound is very different from that of the pileated woodpecker, said Peter McBride, a habitat biologist from Washington with extensive field research in several areas of North America and South America. "It was staccato, incisive, and penetrating," he said, "very similar to that of the Magellanic woodpecker in South America, which is in the same genus as the ivorybill."

The birders couldn't get to the source of the sound because of high water, but they concentrated their efforts in that area for the next two weeks. They found encouraging signs of the woodpecker's habitat. A concentration of trees had extensive scaling of bark and several large cavities in dimensions and positions that resemble descriptions by James Tanner.

Continued on Next Page >>




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