The ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, has been spotted in the swamp forests of eastern Arkansas, according to a paper published today online by the journal "Science." The discovery comes some 60 years after the last confirmed sighting of the large woodpecker and conservationists hope it will energize efforts to safeguard endangered species and their habitat.
The paper details several independent sightings of the species and frame-by-frame analyses of brief video footage gathered during a year long search in the Cache River and White River national wildlife refuges.
"The bird captured on video is clearly an ivory-billed woodpecker," said John Fitzpatrick, the article's lead author, and director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. "Amazingly, America may have another chance to protect the future of this spectacular bird and the awesome forests in which it lives."
Painting of a male ivory-billed woodpecker by Norman Arlott. (Photo courtesy Birdlife International)
Uncommon, but once widespread across the mature, swampy hardwood forests of the southeastern United States, the ivory-billed woodpecker vanished after the extensive logging of region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The species, roughly the size of the American crow, is the largest woodpecker in the United States - and the world's third largest woodpecker.
In all, during more than 7,000 hours of search time, experienced observers reported at least 15 sightings of the woodpecker, seven of which were described in the "Science" article.
More than 50 experts and field biologists worked on the project.
The first sighting came on February 11, 2004 by Gene Sparling, who spotted the male ivory-billed woodpecker while kayaking in Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge is part of the "Big Woods" of Arkansas - a 550,000 acre swath of bayous, bottomland forests and oxbow lakes.
After learning of the sighting, Tim Gallagher, editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "Living Bird" magazine, and Bobby Harrison, associate professor at Alabama's Oakwood College traveled to Arkansas.
On February 27, 2004, the three men spotted the elusive woodpecker in the bayou where Sparling had first seen it.
The first sighting was made by a kayaker in Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo courtesy Birdlife) The sightings led to the formation of a search team, which later became the Big Woods Conservation Partnership, and several additional sightings were confirmed, along with four seconds of video footage captured on April 25, 2004.
Frame-by-frame analyses showed the distinctive white patterns on the bird's wings and back - features that distinguish the ivory-billed woodpecker from the superficially similar, and much more common, pileated woodpecker.
Although the sightings are believed to be of the same bird, Fitzpatrick said the chance that this is the "last of its kind on the planet seem to be vanishingly small."
Woodpeckers rarely live beyond 15 years, Fitzpatrick told reporters, and the spottings prove the species "has been breeding in the Big Woods long after most professional ornithologists though it was extinct."
Lead author director John Fitzpatrick in the field during the 2002 Pearl River expedition. (Photo by Paul Morse courtesy Cornell University) Prior to today's announcement, the last confirmed sighting of the bird - a lone female - was made in 1944 within the mature hardwood forest of northern Louisiana, in an area that now forms the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge.
"It is a landmark rediscovery," said Scott Simon, director of The Nature Conservancy's Arkansas chapter. "Finding the ivory-bill in Arkansas validates decades of great conservation work and represents an incredible story of hope for the future."
The Bush administration, which has been sharply criticized by conservationists for its efforts to safeguard endangered species, announced a proposal to spend some $10 million to protect the ivory-billed woodpecker and restore its habitat.
"Second chances to save wildlife though to be extinct are extremely rare," Interior Secretary Gale Norton told reporters. "We will take advantage of this opportunity to recover this species."
The funds, which would be allocated by the Interior Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would be used for research and monitoring, recovery planning, public education as well as habitat conservation and protection.
Fitzpatrick said the spotting of the bird reflects the success of efforts to restore a small part of the Big Woods to its native state and is a "ray of hope … for those of us who cling to the idea that nature and humanity can coexist."
Federal and state officials cautioned against birdwatchers flocking to the area in hope of a glimpse of the famous species.
"Don't love this bird to death," Norton said. "We have not yet had time to put in place all the things we need so that people might have the opportunity to see the bird."
The ivory-billed woodpecker is listed as one of six North American bird species suspected or known to have become extinct since 1880. (Painting by Mark Bowers courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service) The sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker is a spot of good news amid increasing concern about the state of birds in North America - and across the globe.
"All of us who share this planet owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the individuals and organizations whose tireless efforts led to the rediscovery of this bird," John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society said today. "Thanks to their dedication, we all have a second chance to save this magnificent woodpecker from extinction. As it inspires our hopes, this resilient ivory-billed woodpecker must also inspire our commitment to protect the habitat it needs for survival."
Last October the National Audubon Society released its latest survey of North American bird species and reported some 30 percent are in significant decline, largely due to habitat loss, pollution, urbanization and invasive species.
That followed a major study in 2003 by the Worldwatch Institute found that bird species face a wave of extinction not seen on Earth since the dinosaurs died out some 65 million years ago.
The Worldwatch report warned that some 12 percent of the world's 9,800 bird species are at risk of extinction, with habitat loss the single greatest overall threat.
But today bird conservationists are celebrating. "This extraordinary rediscovery provides hope for the 18 species classified as Potentially Extinct, such as Jamaican Petrel, Javan Lapwing and Pink-headed Duck," said Dr. Michael Rands, director and chief executive of BirdLife International.