[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 
with Sarah.]


    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
    imagine rediscovering."

    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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