Morning Edition, April 28, 2005 · A group of wildlife scientists believe the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct. They say they have made seven firm sightings of the bird in central Arkansas. The landmark find caps a search that began more than 60 years ago, after biologists said North America’s largest woodpecker had become extinct in the United States.
The large, showy bird is an American legend -- it disappeared when the big bottomland forests of North America were logged, and relentless searches have produced only false alarms. Now, in an intensive year-long search in the Cache River and White River national wildlife refuges involving more than 50 experts and field biologists working together as part of the Big Woods Partnership, an ivory-billed male has been captured on video.
"We have solid evidence, there are solid sightings, this bird is here," says Tim Barksdale, a wildlife photographer and biologist.
For an NPR/National Geographic Radio Expeditions story, NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce joined the search last January along Arkansas’ White River, where a kayaker spotted what he believed to be an ivory-billed woodpecker more than a year ago. Many other similar sightings over the last 60 years have raised false hopes.
But this time, Joyce reports that experts associated with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in New York and The Nature Conservancy were able to confirm the sighting. They kept the find a secret for more than a year, partly to give conservation groups and government agencies time to protect the bird’s habitat.
The Nature Conservancy has been buying and protecting land along the White and Cache Rivers for years, along with the state and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Since the discovery, they've bought more land to protect the bird.
That's a pretty big secret to keep for a year, especially when reporters are in on it. Very impressive.
When I first was told that an ivory-billed woodpecker was found, I was skeptical. I've heard some of the false alarms over the years. But this time it's different. This time it's actually been seen multiple times by numerous experts, even captured on video. They sound extremely confident. So who am I to be skeptical? I'm sold.
"The bird captured on video is clearly an ivory-billed woodpecker. Amazingly, America may have another chance to protect the future of this spectacular bird and the awesome forests in which it lives," Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, said in a statement.
The most recent false alarm that I heard of was based on a plausible sighting in Louisiana in 1999. As a result of that, two methodical searches were performed in early 2002. One by a "dream team" funded by Zeiss Sports Optics, and one from Cornell that set up state-of-the-art recording devices to listen for the bird's call.
The Zeiss team failed to see a bird, but they found tantalizing evidence: large nest cavities, tree bark possibly peeled by hungry ivory-bills looking for beetle larvae -- and an unusual drumming sound. The series of loud raps were unlike any other woodpecker the team had ever heard.
Unfortunately, the recording devices set up by Cornell did not detect any evidence of ivory-bills over the following months. So the 2002 effort, despite all the attention it received, ended in disappointment.
This year, the story is different. Amazingly so.
Hedwig at Living the Scientific Life writes:
I am joyful beyond words. The world is a better, richer, more magical place. Knowing that this magnificent bird lives still, despite all the terrible things that we have done to them, provides a glimmer of hope that not all is lost.
And Mike at 10,000 Birds:
Details on this momentous event are forthcoming and will be the subject of an announcement by the journal Science later today. But for now, we can savor the satisfaction of this joyous discovery, a validation of two undeniable truths. The first, of course, is that where there is life, there's hope. The second, no less profound, is that we have no earthly idea what goes on in the backwoods of Arkansas!
Reading the stories about the 2002 search again, I was struck by this quote from the aforementioned John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:
"It's so hard for me to talk about the idea of seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker without actually getting a little choked up," he tells NPR correspondent Christopher Joyce. "It would be so huge, it's a bird that everybody who becomes a birdwatcher, who looked at the pictures in the Peterson Field Guide since they could read, and have dreamed about this spectacular bird and all these beautiful forests it was in. The idea of actually laying eyes on one, I would burst out into tears."
I have not devoted my life to studying birds as Fitzpatrick has, but even the thought that they are still alive after 60 years and so much previously-futile searching makes me feel similarly.
UPDATE: From the press release announcing this amazing news, it appears Fitzpatick, unsurprisingly, is not alone in his feelings:
While kayaking in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge on Feb. 11, 2004, Gene Sparling of Hot Springs, Ark., saw an unusually large, red-crested woodpecker fly toward him and land on a nearby tree. He noticed several field marks suggesting the bird was an ivory-billed woodpecker.
A week later, after learning of the sighting, Tim Gallagher, editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Living Bird magazine, and Bobby Harrison, associate professor at Oakwood College, Huntsville, Ala., interviewed Sparling. They were so convinced by his report that they traveled to Arkansas and then with Sparling to the bayou where he had seen the bird.
On Feb. 27, as Sparling paddled ahead, a large black-and-white woodpecker flew across the bayou less than 70 feet in front of Gallagher and Harrison, who simultaneously cried out: "Ivory-bill!" Minutes later, after the bird had disappeared into the forest, Gallagher and Harrison sat down to sketch independently what each had seen. Their field sketches, included in the Science article, show the characteristic patterns of white and black on the wings of the woodpecker.
"When we finished our notes," Gallagher said, "Bobby sat down on a log, put his face in his hands and began to sob, saying, 'I saw an ivory-bill. I saw an ivory-bill.'" Gallagher said he was too choked with emotion to speak. "Just to think this bird made it into the 21st century gives me chills. It's like a funeral shroud has been pulled back, giving us a glimpse of a living bird, rising Lazarus-like from the grave," he said.
UPDATE 2: Via Democratic Underground, here is an eyewitness account of an ivory-bill sighting in Arkansas in 2003 by amateur enthusiast Mary Scott, who runs a website entitled Birding America. She closes with this:
The strangest thing about seeing a living Ivory-billed Woodpecker was that it was just a bird, albeit a magnificent one, going about its life in the swamp. We humans tend to project our angst about the damage we have done to our natural world on icons of loss, like the ivorybill. Happily, the bird I saw was doing fine. He was cruising around a beautiful world, on a beautiful day, and although he may have been wondering if there was a female around, or how his little family was doing, he wasn't burdened with gloomy thoughts of extinction. That is our burden to bear.
UPDATE 3: The Science article is now online.