August 30, 2005

Science Backs Rare Bird Find

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Over the five-day conference, Fitzpatrick and his colleagues did their best to convince the Union’s membership that the ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, is not extinct.

In April, Lab ornithologists announced that they had rediscovered the ivory-billed woodpecker in eastern Arkansas’ Big Woods. An article in the journal Science, which Fitzpatrick helped author, summarized their findings.

During a year-and-a-half-long expedition, the Cornell-led team documented several woodpecker sightings and collected corroborative audio and visual recordings; evidence enough, they reasoned, that at least one ivory-billed woodpecker – likely male – is still alive among the Big Woods’ dense cypresses.

Optimistic birders and naturalists were ecstatic; the last confirmed ivory-billed-woodpecker sighting was more than a half-century ago.

Others were more reserved, even skeptical; previous purported sightings, which also attracted international press coverage and public enthusiasm, have proven to be false. The ivory-billed woodpecker often resembles the more-common pileated woodpecker, and the American blue jay can mimic its call expertly; even seasoned, expert birders have been duped by look-alikes and sound-alikes.

In Santa Barbara, Fitzpatrick and his colleagues delivered four technical presentations on their rediscovery initiative, findings and conservation campaign. Later, Fitzpatrick gave a highly anticipated evening keynote address to an overflow audience of conference participants, amateur birders and media.

The ivory-billed woodpecker and its century-long decline are central to a great, sad narrative. Demand for timber from the woodpecker’s native swamp-forest habitat increased in the early twentieth century. The world noted the bird’s decline as early as the 1920s.

The Washington Post noted conservationists’ concerns in 1935: “The ivory-billed woodpecker, king of its tribe, inhabiting the great cypress swamps, probably is making its last stand in Florida.” William Faulkner alluded to the elusive woodpecker in his 1942 short story, The Bear.

And George Plimpton canoed around the South in search of the bird on an ornithological expedition.

In his keynote, Fitzpatrick told the bird’s story, and illustrated it with audio, film footage and pictures from Cornell’s archives.

Of the few photographs of the ivory-billed woodpecker that exist, most were captured by another Cornell ornithologist, the legendary Prof. Arthur A. Allen, during an ornithological pilgrimage to the South in 1935. His pictures, coupled with earlier artists’ renderings and a few coarse film clips, continue to be scientists’ and birders’ points-of-reference as they search for the bird.

In December 1934, an article in Science announced Allen’s expedition to the scientific community; it indicates that, over the last seventy years, Cornell ornithologists’ aims have hardly changed.

“Professor Arthur A. Allen, of the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University, will lead an

expedition next spring to search out the haunts of rare North American birds in order to preserve for future generations their habitats and calls,” it read.

Allen and his colleagues took early recording equipment on their trip. Although it was then considered to be portable and modern, their audio gear filled two trucks.

“The trucks will be equipped with cameras and blinds and modern sound-recording equipment so that the voices as well as the actions and appearance of the bird can be recorded on films and preserved for posterity,” the article continued.

Later in his talk, as expected, Fitzpatrick played some newly recorded sounds and showed a brief video of what is believed to be an ivory-billed woodpecker; the clip is less than two seconds long. Fitzgerald resolutely believes that the bird is alive, and that he and his colleagues changed many skeptics’ minds in Santa Barbara.

“They heard the sounds, and saw the bigger, personal analysis of the story, and were convinced,” said Fitzpatrick. “I don’t have any personal doubt that the bird exists. Ornithologists now are either convinced by the evidence, or agree that there is substantial evidence that [the ivory-billed woodpecker is] there. That’s true of even the most skeptical ones.”

Prof. Jerome A. Jackson, biology, Florida Gulf Coast University, could be counted among the “most skeptical.” After the Science story went to press, Jackson and two colleagues – Prof. Richard O. Prum, Yale, and Prof. Mark Robbins, University of Kansas – questioned the Cornell-led team’s certitude based on what the scientists had published.

According to Jackson, the preliminary evidence in the Science article was not irrefutable, so he and his colleagues chose to author a formal critique.

In the intervening weeks, Jackson, Prum and Robbins heard new evidence. Ultimately they withdrew their paper from the Public Library of Science, the journal to which they had submitted it.

In an email to The Sun in advance of the meeting in Santa Barbara, Jackson described the evidence he heard.

“I did hear … the tapes played over the phone,” Jackson said. “And the vocalizations did sound like Ivory-bills. In 1935, Arthur Allen of Cornell made extensive recordings of Ivory-bills in the Singer Tract – which gives us excellent documentation of what the birds sounded like. The recordings I heard over the phone sounded like those birds.”

In his email, Jackson also defended his skepticism.

“Science advances on the basis of evidence that can be scrutinized by other scientists,” Jackson said.

Like many ornithologists, including Fitzpatrick, Jackson wants to see high-definition images of the woodpecker; recordings and personal sightings are hardly irrefutable.

“The recordings are compelling evidence,” Jackson said. “The proof that is needed – and which we hope will be forthcoming in the near future – is some first-rate, clearly recent photos or video.” Fitzpatrick admitted that “the most tenuous of all the pieces of evidence are the sounds that we describe as the ‘kent-like’ sounds.” The high-pitched, “kent-like” calls are those which can be imitated by blue jays.

The sound-recording technology that Cornell-led team will continue to use was developed to collect underwater sounds from cetaceans. Each recorder and small, battery-powered microphone is enclosed in PVC piping, and sounds are recorded digitally to a hard drive.

“We can place these things in operation remotely in all the places where we go,” said Fitzpatrick. “Then we get this avalanche of data.”

Afterward, sophisticated software analyzes the signals and highlights clips that – based on their structure – might be made by a woodpecker. These electronically-selected excerpts are then listened to by researchers.

The ivory-billed woodpecker has never been declared extinct formally. The last time the bird was definitively seen was in Louisiana in 1944. Since then, there have been periodic reports from birders who have claimed to have seen the bird in the South and Cuba. Come November, volunteers and 20 to 30 full-time employees will return to the Big Woods to scour the preserves and analyze more data.

Fitzgerald will count himself among those who will make the sojourn from Sapsucker Woods to Arkansas, even if he can only escape his academic and administrative commitments in Ithaca for a few weeks.

“I haven’t seen the bird yet,” said Fitzpatrick. “I look forward to it.”

Archived article by David Austin Gura
Sun Senior Writer