April 29, 2005

'Extinct' Woodpecker Found

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In the world of ornithology, sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker are generally considered about as credible as Elvis sightings. The bird, Campephilus principalis, has not been positively identified in 60 years, and has consequently become a poster-child for extinct species. However, Cornell researchers say that they have positively identified one in the swampy bayous of eastern Arkansas.

The search for the woodpecker began earnestly after a Feb. 11, 2004 sighting by a kayaker in Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. A report of the sighting eventually worked its way to Tim Gallagher, the editor-in-chief of Living Bird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s quarterly magazine.

Gallagher, along with Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College, was working on a book about the bird. The two headed down to Arkansas in an attempt to see, firsthand, the bird that has been “extinct” for 60 years.

Two weeks after the initial sighting, the duo did just that. Five more sightings were made over the next months, and then the key pieces of evidence: a brief, grainy video clip coupled with recordings of the distinctive “double-knock” call of the woodpecker.

“The bird captured on this video can be nothing other than an ivory-billed woodpecker,” said Prof. John W. Fitzpatrick, ecology and evolutionary biology. He was the co-leader of the Arkansas search.

“There is no bird like this in the world,” he said in a statement. “Amazingly, America may have another chance to protect the future of this spectacular bird and the awesome forests in which it lives.”

Fitzpatrick was a co-author of a paper published in yesterday in Science magazine, which detailed the findings.

According to a University press release, the rediscovery of the bird has galvanized efforts to save the Big Woods of Arkansas, which are 550,000 acres of bayous, bottomland forests and oxbow lakes.

“Second chances to save wildlife once thought to be extinct are rare,” Interior Secretary Gale Norton said, according to the Associated Press. “We will take advantage of this opportunity.”

Norton and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns promised millions of dollars in federal assistance to work with the state and local residents to protect this bird, the agency reported.

For Gallagher, however, simply seeing the bird has been an amazing experience.

“Just to think that this bird has made it into the 21st century gives me chills,” he said. “It’s like a funeral shroud has been pulled back, giving us a brief glimpse of a living bird, rising Lazarus-like from the grave. This is a bird with natural appeal — one that will capture and fire up the imagination of people throughout America and the world.”

Archived article by Michael Morisy
Sun News Editor