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Sightings spur rush to aid ‘extinct’ woodpecker

The ivory-billed woodpecker, long feared extinct, has been rediscovered in a remote part of Arkansas — sparking a fast-track effort to save the bird.
This illustration shows ivory-billed woodpeckers in their native habitat.
This illustration shows ivory-billed woodpeckers in their native habitat.John A. Ruthven
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The ivory-billed woodpecker, long feared extinct, has been rediscovered in a remote part of Arkansas some 60 years after the last confirmed U.S. sighting, bird experts said Thursday. In response, the federal government immediately announced a plan to save the bird.

"Today we are commiting to a multiagency, multimillion-dollar, multiyear program to provide hope for this bird's continued survival," Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced at a news conference.

She said this was the first time in her memory that an American species considered to be extinct had been rediscovered. "Second chances to save wildlife thought to be extinct are extremely rare," she said.

The Interior and Agriculture departments would set aside $10 million this year for the "Corridor of Hope" conservation plan, supplementing private funding, Norton said. The "Corridor of Hope" refers to the Big Woods of Arkansas, an area about 120 miles (192 kilometers) long and up to 20 miles (32 kilometers) wide in eastern Arkansas where the bird was sighted.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said landowners in the area could become eligible for $13.5 million in rental payments over the next 15 years to maintain the trees that ivory-billed woodpeckers use as their habitat.

Rush report
The series of sightings, which began more than a year ago, were reported in research published online Thursday by the journal Science on a rush basis. Ornithologist John Fitzpatrick of Cornell University, one of the researchers behind the Science paper, said that several independent sightings of the bird had been made in recent years, but that the latest sightings were the first confirmed by video and audio documentation.

For birdwatchers, "nothing could have been more hoped for than this holy grail," Fitzpatrick told reporters Thursday.

Frank Gill, senior ornithologist at the Audubon Society, said the discovery “is kind of like finding Elvis.”

“There have been lots and lots of reports and many of them have been off but others have been possible,” Gill added. “But this time we got it.”

Fitzpatrick reported that a video clip, though blurry, also shows the bird and key features, including the size and markings.

“The bird captured on video is clearly an ivory-billed woodpecker. Amazingly, America may have another chance to protect the future of this spectacular bird and the awesome forests in which it lives,” Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, said in a statement.

'Lord God bird'
Fitzpatrick identified the bird by magnifying and analyzing individual frames of the video clip.

A large, dramatic-looking bird, the ivory-billed woodpecker was known to be shy and to prefer the deep woods of the U.S. Southeast. It was sometimes nicknamed the “Lord God bird,” Fitzpatrick told reporters in a telephone briefing.

“It is such a striking bird. When people would see it they would say, 'Lord God, what a woodpecker.’ That’s where it came from,” he said.

It's not certain if more than one bird has been sighted, but Gill believes that's the case. “There has got to be a pretty serious lineage,” Gill said. “It’s got to be more than a few.”

Demise tied to logging
The ivory-billed woodpecker, one of the largest such birds in the world, is one of six North American bird species thought to have become extinct since 1880. While rare, the bird ranged widely across the southeastern United States until logging eliminated many forests between 1880 and the 1940s.

There have been anecdotal reports of the birds, but the last conclusive sighting in continental North America was in 1944. A subspecies of the bird has been reported in Cuba.

The new sightings each involved a different person or group, Fitzpatrick said.

About 40 percent of the forest in this region is approaching maturity, and nearby land has been reforested in the last decade.

First report in 2004
The bird is larger than a pileated woodpecker, which is similar in appearance and has the black-and-while markings of the ivory-billed bird.

The Nature Conservancy, which has protected a large segment of land in the area, reported that the first sighting came on Feb. 11, 2004, by Gene Sparling of Hot Springs, Ark.

"It was an unbelievable blessing placed before me," Sparling told reporters.

After learning of the sighting, Tim Gallagher of Cornell and Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., traveled to the area with Sparling and also sighted the bird. Gallagher said the experience rendered him speechless and brought Harrison to tears.

Other sightings followed, including one on April 25, 2004, in which David Luneau of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock videotaped the bird taking off from the trunk of a tree.

The Nature Conservancy reported 15 sightings of the bird in 7,000 hours of search time concentrating on a 16-square-mile area.

Not sightseeing-friendly
People are likely to flock to the area to try to see the birds themselves, but it will be difficult, Gill said.

“It is not something you just go down and see. Your odds are very low,” Gill said. “It is remote, difficult country. This time of year it is getting very buggy and very snaky and there is a lot of foliage.”

Interior Secretary Norton warned birdwatchers not to go overboard: "Don't love this bird to death," she said.

Gill said the discovery could turn the Big Woods area into a "globally important bird wildlife area" — a development that would be welcomed by conservationists concerned about shrinking woodlands. Scott Simon, director of the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, said the region was "the Amazon of North America."

“This area was once the largest expanse of forested wetlands in the country, originally consisting of 21 million acres of bottomland hardwood forests. Today, only 4.9 million acres remain, mostly in scattered woodland patches,” the Nature Conservancy says on its Web site.