[Paleopsych] NYT: In the Swamp, an 'Extinct' Woodpecker Lives
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Fri Apr 29 15:38:17 UTC 2005
In the Swamp, an 'Extinct' Woodpecker Lives
[I heard my first woodpecker, not this rare one, just last Winter when walking
By JAMES GORMAN
BRINKLEY, Ark., April 28 - The ivory-billed woodpecker, a magnificent
bird long given up for extinct, has been sighted in the cypress and
tupelo swamp of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge here in
Arkansas, scientists announced Thursday.
Bird experts, government agencies and conservation organizations
involved kept the discovery secret for more than a year, while they
worked to confirm the discovery and protect the bird's territory.
Their announcement on Thursday brought rejoicing among birdwatchers,
for whom the ivory bill has long been a holy grail - a creature that
has been called the Lord God bird, apparently because that is what
people exclaimed when they saw it.
Dr. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who
led the effort to confirm the sightings, said at a news conference in
Washington, "This is really the most spectacular creature we could
He was joined by Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, who announced that
her agency, along with the Department of Agriculture, had proposed to
spend $10 million in federal money for research, habitat protection
and law enforcement efforts to protect the bird. The Nature
Conservancy and other conservation groups have bought land in the
region of the refuge to help preserve a larger area.
The bird was seen in thickly forested bottomland near here, the deep,
wet woods immortalized by Faulkner. On Thursday, researchers were
traveling by canoe down slow-flowing clay-colored bayous hoping for
another sighting, and working to finish up surveys of the territory.
With its 30-inch wingspan and formidable bill, its sharp black and
white coloring, and the male's carmine crest, the ivory bill was the
largest of American woodpeckers, described by John James Audubon as
"this great chieftain of the woodpecker tribe."
Once a dominant creature of great Southern hardwood forest, its
numbers dwindled as logging increased. The woodpecker inspired one of
the first conservation efforts in the nation's history, but its
seeming failure turned the ivory bill into a symbol of loss. The last
documented sighting was in Louisiana in 1944.
But the ivory bill lived on as a kind of ghost in rumor and in
numerous possible sightings. Despite lengthy expeditions, no sighting
was confirmed, until Feb. 11, 2004.
On that date Gene M. Sparling III sighted a large woodpecker with a
red crest in the Cache River refuge. Tim W. Gallagher at the Cornell
Lab saw the report from Mr. Sparling on a Web site where he was
describing a kayak trip.
Within two weeks Mr. Gallagher and Bobby R. Harrison of Oakwood
College in Huntsville, Ala., were in a canoe in the refuge, with Mr.
Sparling guiding them.
Mr. Gallagher said he had expected to camp out for a week, but after
one night out, on Feb. 27, he and Mr. Harrison were paddling up a
bayou bounded on both sides by cypress and tupelo when they saw a very
large woodpecker fly in front of their canoe.
When they wrote down their notes independently and compared them, Mr.
Gallagher said, Mr. Harrison was struck by the reality of the
discovery and began sobbing, repeating, "I saw an ivory bill."
Mr. Gallagher felt the same. "I couldn't speak," he said.
Once Mr. Gallagher convinced Dr. Fitzpatrick of Cornell, the effort to
confirm the sightings began in earnest, and the result, published in
the online version of Science, carried the names of 16 people from
seven institutions who participated in a search that turned up seven
confirmed new sightings and a blurry bit of videotape.
An analysis of the video to determine the size and manner of flying of
the bird, as well as the other sightings and the detailed reports of
experts like Mr. Gallagher, proved convincing.
Dr. Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard ecologist and writer who has called
the ivory bill the signature bird of the Southern forest, said the
question now was whether there was a breeding population.
"I'm a little hopeful," he said, given that the previous confirmed
sighting was 60 years ago. The birds live about 15 years, so some
breeding population had to have survived for some time.
Frank Gill, former president of the National Audubon Society, said of
the news, "You get so depressed by the state of things, to suddenly
have this happen in your backyard" is wonderful, "just the thought
that there are places in the world still - deep wilderness - harboring
a secret like this."
One particularly bright spot, Dr. Fitzpatrick said, is that the place
where the bird was seen is already protected.
The bayou where the bird was sighted is in thick swamp where even a
great blue heron taking off not 20 yards away disappeared immediately.
On a paddle through the bayou led by researchers from the Cornell Lab
and a representative of the Nature Conservancy, the flat, clay-colored
water was broken only by the splashing of turtles and the rapid-fire
paddling of a frightened wood duck chick. Birds in the distance were
heard but not seen. There was no sign of an ivory bill.
As Dr. Fitzpatrick put it, the woodpecker is doing a good job of
"protecting itself." He added, "It is really scarce and really wary."
Now the effort to protect the bird will continue, as will the search
for other individuals.
Scott Simon, state director of the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas,
said the finding was a validation of the kind of cooperative
conservation on the part of private organizations and government that
had thrived in Arkansas. Mr. Simon said he hoped it would promote
conservation and acknowledged that ecotourism, fed by the ivory bill,
could have benefits.
But for now, he said, "we would like people to give us a little bit of
As for the woodpeckers, there is only proof of one bird so far. If
there are more, then perhaps, Dr. Gill said, "we can put Humpty Dumpty
back together again."
Nobody wants to think about the alternative. If the last living ivory
bill has been found, the discovery may be more bitter than sweet.
John Files contributed reporting from Washington for this article.
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