Extinct? After 60 Years, Woodpecker Begs to Differ

An illustration highlights the ivory-billed woodpecker's unusual plumage. Video of the bird in flight is at washingtonpost.com.
An illustration highlights the ivory-billed woodpecker's unusual plumage. Video of the bird in flight is at washingtonpost.com. (By George M. Sutton -- Cornell Lab Of Ornithology)
By David Brown and Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 29, 2005

The ivory-billed woodpecker, last seen in 1944 and long assumed to be extinct, is alive and well and living in Arkansas.

One is, at least.

A male ivory bill was seen by a lone kayaker on Feb. 11, 2004, in a cypress and tupelo-gum swamp in northern Arkansas. Since then there have been six other sightings. A year ago this week, a video camera mounted in a canoe recorded four seconds of the bird in flight, catching its distinctive white wing patches.

"This is confirmed. This is dead solid confirmed," said John W. Fitzpatrick, head of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the lead author of a paper describing the discovery published online yesterday by the journal Science.

Word of the woodpecker's survival -- long rumored, never proved -- came at a news conference here featuring two Cabinet secretaries, two senators, half a dozen biologists (including one who moved from the Netherlands to pursue the elusive bird), representatives of several conservation organizations and the kayaker. They spoke with amazement, ardor and reverence.

The ivory-billed woodpecker was sighted in eastern Arkansas.
"I can't begin to tell you how thrilling it is. It's thrilling beyond words," Fitzpatrick said.

"The great thing about this discovery is that it fills us with the hope that just perhaps we did not destroy one of the most enchanting ecosystems in the United States," said Craig Manson, assistant secretary of the interior for fish, wildlife and parks.

"This bird has materialized miraculously out of the past but is also a symbol of the future," said Steve McCormick, president of the Nature Conservancy.

Few creatures have been more celebrated by American naturalists or shrouded in mystery as the ivory-billed woodpecker. Rediscovery of the bird, the subject of one of John James Audubon's paintings, marks the end of nearly 60 years of hoaxes, false alarms and frustrating searches.

Despite the unambiguous new report, much mystery remains.

The only confirmed sightings have been of male birds, all in a two-mile radius of the first glimpse in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. Scientists do not know whether it was the same bird each time.

Thirty scientists are now in Arkansas's 500,000-acre Big Woods ecosystem -- land intermittently flooded by tributaries of the Mississippi River -- looking for ivory bills. The last sighting was Feb. 15. One team recently heard what sounded like two birds calling to each other but did not see them. Everyone involved was sworn to secrecy until the Cornell team's analysis of the sighting and video was written, peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in a journal.

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