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Arkansans unfazed by woodpecker debate

While scientists debate whether or not a nearly extinct species of woodpecker was really sighted in the woods of Arkansas, locals say they're just glad for all the attention.
Nathan Banfield, a full-time bird searcher, looks for signs of the rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker at Hichkson Lake, near Brinkley, ArkMike Wintroath / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Those who live and work in the region where an ivory-billed woodpecker was reportedly spotted are used to people doubting the bird's discovery — they've heard it before.

But despite an article in Friday's issue of the journal Science that suggests the bird does not live in the eastern swamps of Arkansas, locals in the 4,000-resident town of Brinkley don't believe birders will take flight.

"We've been hearing people say they don't believe it's here since the beginning," said Sandra Kemmer, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Brinkley, located about halfway between Little Rock and Memphis, Tenn. "I'm actually glad because it keeps it in the eye of the public."

In the journal, one set of researchers argues that a bird videotaped in 2004 by David Luneau of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock was probably a common pileated woodpecker.

Gov. Mike Huckabee said the article illustrates the authors' poor birdwatching ability more than it proves that the ivory-billed woodpecker doesn't live in Arkansas.

"Some of the world's leading ornithologists have verified through sight and sound the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker," Huckabee said. "The fact that these skeptics can't find it says more about their bird-hunting ability than the accuracy of the experts' opinions."

Another group of researchers agrees with Huckabee, stoutly defending the woodpecker's identification as an ivory-bill.

The distinction is important because the ivory-billed woodpecker had been thought extinct. If one is still alive, there probably are more.

Questions about video
A research team headed by David A. Sibley of Concord, Mass., said the quality of the video is not good enough to clearly see the white stripes on the bird's back that would mark it as ivory-billed.

Also, the large amounts of white seen while the bird is flying can be accounted for by the underside of the wings of a pileated woodpecker, the researchers wrote.

Luneau, who was part of the other group that defends the identification as an ivory-bill, said its researchers have taken video of pileated woodpeckers for two years to compare the birds.

"Obviously we'd all agree that it's easier to get video of a pileated woodpecker than an ivory-bill," Luneau said. "But the video that I got of the ivory-bill doesn't match up to any of the videos of the pileated."

** FILE ** This print showing Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, from an engraving by John J. Audubon, was made available by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Dozens of birders have flocked to the wildlife refuges of the Arkansas Delta to follow up on a kayaker's 2004 sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a bird so rare it was thought to have been extinct. (AP Photo/Massachusetts Audubon Society, File) **NO SALES**Massachusetts Audubon Society / MASSACHUSETTS AUDUBON SOCIETY

While Luneau is confident of the bird's existence in the Big Woods section of Arkansas, he says time will tell if birders believe the ivory-billed woodpecker lives in the state.

The search for the woodpecker has been a boon for the Big Woods, with tourist business up an estimated 30 percent and shops selling woodpecker memorabilia. Brinkley even held a woodpecker celebration in February.

The debate might not ground the birding frenzy. Penny Childs, who last year helped start a wave of woodpecker merchandise by offering an ivory-billed haircut at her salon, said she's receiving e-mails and inquiries from all over the world.

"They believe he's out there and they're going to keep believing he's out there," Childs said.