Ivory Billed Woodpecker, Feared Extinct, Isn't

The ivory-billed woodpecker, long feared extinct, has been seen in a remote part of Arkansas 60 years after the last confirmed U.S. sighting, ornithologists said Thursday.

WASHINGTON — The ivory-billed woodpecker, long feared extinct, has been seen in a remote part of Arkansas 60 years after the last confirmed U.S. sighting, ornithologists said Thursday.

Several experts have spotted and heard an ivory-billed woodpecker in a protected forest in eastern Arkansas near the last reliable sighting of the bird in 1944, and one was captured on video last year.

"The ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), long suspected to be extinct, has been rediscovered in the 'Big Woods' region of eastern Arkansas," researchers wrote in the journal Science in an article hastily prepared for release.

Drumming sounds made by the birds have also been heard, the researchers said.

"This is huge. Just huge," said Frank Gill, senior ornithologist at the Audubon Society. "It is kind of like finding Elvis."


Gill said there is little doubt the sightings are genuine. One male was videotaped from a boat in 2004.

"The ivory-billed woodpecker is one of six North American bird species suspected or known to have gone extinct since 1880," wrote the researchers, led by John Fitzpatrick of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology in New York.

"The others are Labrador duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius), Eskimo curlew (Numenius borealis), Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), and Bachman's warbler (Vermivora bachmanii)."


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.

As the name suggests, the birds have ivory-colored bills that help distinguish them from the similar but much more common pileated woodpecker.

The large black-and-white birds have distinctive white wing patches and measure at least 13 inches from "wrist" to tail. Males have a red crest.

The survival of ivory bills is closely tied to that of the deep, swampy forests it lived in. "Its disappearance coincided with systematic annihilation of virgin tall forests across southeastern United States between 1880 and the 1940s," the researchers wrote.

The last confirmed sighting was in 1988 in eastern Cuba but the U.S. bird is considered to be a separate "race," the Audubon society says.

"There have been lots and lots of reports and many of them have been off but others have been possible," Gill said in a telephone interview. "But this time we got it."

Gill said the bird was seen just over the border from Louisiana where the last documented ivory-bill was seen in 1944. "As a woodpecker flies it's not far," he said.

The birds only live about 15 years so the sightings mean they must be breeding somewhere.

"There has got to be a pretty serious lineage," Gill said. "It's got to be more than a few."

"If there is a next holy grail ... the next holy grail would be to find a mated pair," Fitzpatrick said.

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 snakey and there is a lot of foliage."

But the discovery may help get protection for a larger area of the Big Woods, the nonprofit Nature Conservancy said.

Fitzpatrick said some of the hardwood trees the birds depend on have grown back after logging in the early part of the 20th century. "The conditions are only going to get better," he said.

"In concept, at least, it is possible the worst for this bird has passed. Proper management could let it thrive again," Fitzpatrick added.

Source: Reuters