Alive and Knocking: Glimpses of an ivory-billed legend

A 4-second video released last week and reports of brief glimpses by seven observers have convinced many biologists and birders that the famed ivory-billed woodpecker has not gone extinct after all.

BIG BIRD. An ivory-billed woodpecker in a 1930s photograph, with color added, shows the distinctive white on its back and lower wings. Cornell Lab. of Ornithology

The third-largest woodpecker in the world, measuring some 20 inches from crest tip to tail, this bird once ranged through the old-growth forests of the southeastern United States and Cuba. Logging wiped out the old trees in those areas, and until last week, the last widely accepted U.S. sighting of the bird occurred in 1944 in Louisiana (SN: 6/22/02, p. 397: Available to subscribers at Oops. Woodpecker raps were actually gunshots).

But on April 28, the Web site of Science published an analysis by 17 authors and posted the video as proof that at least one ivory-billed woodpecker lives in the cypress and tupelo swamps of eastern Arkansas. At a Washington, D.C., briefing the same day, two cabinet secretaries, two senators, and a flock of other officials, conservationists, and journalists heard about sightings of the woodpecker and raptly watched a slowed-down video mostly of a man’s knee and the side of a canoe. In the blur of the background, a big bird flashed bold white patches as it flapped into the woods (

“The ivory-billed woodpecker has been rediscovered,” announced John Fitzpatrick, one of the authors and director of Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology. “In the world of birding, nothing could be more longed for than to rediscover this bird.”

Fitzpatrick’s team identified five diagnostic traits of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the video, made by a searcher who kept a camera strapped to his canoe and running all the time. The bird is too big to be a pileated woodpecker but falls into the range of museum specimens of ivory-billed woodpeckers, the team says.

“As soon as I saw the video—There you go!” says Terry Rich in Boise, Idaho, who coordinates the Partners in Flight international conservation program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says that in that habitat, there could be no other bird that size with white markings on its back.

The story began Feb. 11, 2004, when Gene Sparling, kayaking in the bayous of Arkansas’s Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, saw a large, red-crested woodpecker. His online report of the sighting attracted interest from two longtime ivory-billed-woodpecker questers, Tim Gallagher, editor of the Cornell’s Living Bird magazine, and Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala.

When Sparling later guided them through the refuge, a big bird with bold white patches under its wings flapped toward the two guests. “We almost fell out of the canoe,” says Gallagher.

These sightings convinced Fitzpatrick, The Nature Conservancy, and other members of the Big Woods Coalition to fund a systematic search. Fear for the bird’s safety inspired them to swear to secrecy the dozens of people who worked for more than a year on the project.

For example, Cornell ecologist Melinda LaBranche, sitting alone, ankle-deep in mud on April 10, 2004, saw the bird’s white underwing edges. She says that she later hid her field notes and sketched a wing onto her life list of bird species but didn’t add the name.

The team members disciplined themselves to not speak the bird’s name in public but instead used “ibwo” or “Elvis.”

“We have to be cautious about getting too excited about one or two of anything,” says wildlife ecologist Donna Ball of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hilo, Hawaii.

Fitzpatrick guesses there’s more than one ivory-billed woodpecker in the Arkansas swamp. Federal and private efforts so far have raised $20 million to increase the protection of the bird’s habitat.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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