A Bellwether of the Wild, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, Is Back

Times Staff Writer

The ivory-billed woodpecker, a symbol of the fading American wilderness that was thought to have been pushed into extinction, has been spotted by scientists for the first time in 60 years, taking wing in the wild swamplands of Arkansas.

The reappearance of the bird, one of the world’s largest woodpeckers, was hailed Thursday as a validation of efforts to preserve and restore forested areas throughout the country.

“This is huge,” said Frank Gill, a former president of the Audubon Society. “It’s kind of like finding Elvis.”

There have been sporadic reports of sightings since the last confirmed appearance of the bird in Louisiana in 1944, but researchers have generally dismissed them as the imaginings of overenthusiastic amateurs.

The new conclusion that the species is still extant is based on at least eight separate sightings in the last year -- many of them by experienced ornithologists -- and a video by David Luneau of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.


“The bird captured on video is clearly an ivory-billed woodpecker,” said ornithologist John Weaver Fitzpatrick of Cornell University, who reported the finding with his colleagues Thursday in the online version of the journal Science.

The bird is hard to mistake. It has a 3-foot wingspan and distinctive black-and-white markings.

The creature is sometimes called the “Lord, God bird,” he said. “It’s such a striking bird that, when people would see it, they would say, ‘Lord, God, what a woodpecker!’ ”

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton called the find an exciting opportunity. “Second chances to save wildlife once thought to be extinct are rare,” she said at a Thursday news conference where she announced $10 million in new funds to bolster restoration of the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas, where the bird was spotted.

Ivory-billed woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis) once roamed freely through the extensive cypress swamps and pine forests of the Southeast.

Biologist E.O. Wilson called them “the signature bird” of the Southern coastal plain. They are large black-and-white birds, 19 to 21 inches long, that are second in size only to the imperial woodpecker of Mexico.

Males have a red crest, while females have a black head and crest. White wing patches and a stripe down the side of the head and continuing down its back distinguish the ivory-billed from the pileated woodpecker, which is nearly as large and much more abundant. The birds have a large, light-colored, chisel-tipped bill; the pileated woodpecker has a much darker bill.

Dead trees provide nesting sites and food. The birds remove bark by pecking at it with their characteristic double-tap drumming, which researchers have heard frequently in the Big Woods area. Females lay three to four eggs, for which the males assume sole responsibility at night.

A nesting pair requires about three square miles of forest for sustenance, so that even when the birds were widespread, their populations were never dense. It was this need for large areas of forest that drove the bird into near-extinction as the wilderness fell to deforestation.

The bird was one of six North American bird species that were thought to have gone extinct since 1880.

The current surge of interest began on Feb. 11, 2004, when amateur ornithologist Gene M. Sparling III of Hot Springs, Ark., saw what he thought was an ivory-billed woodpecker while kayaking in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, halfway between Little Rock and Memphis, Tenn., and reported it to a bird-watchers’ website.

A week later, Tim W. Gallagher, editor of the Cornell lab of ornithology’s Living Bird magazine, and Bobby R. Harrison of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., interviewed him and were so impressed by his account that they accompanied him on a second trip.

On Feb. 27, a large black-and-white woodpecker flew less than 70 feet in front of their canoe on the bayou. Both simultaneously cried out, “Ivory-bill!”

After they finished their notes and sketches of the bird, Gallagher said, “Bobby sat down on a log, put his face in his hands and began to sob, saying, ‘I saw an ivory-bill. I saw an ivory-bill.’ ”

Gallagher said he was speechless after the sighting. “Just to think that this bird made it into the 21st century gives me chills,” he said. “It’s like a funeral shroud has been pulled back, giving us a glimpse of a living bird, rising Lazarus-like from the grave.”

Researchers then organized several bird-watching expeditions, spending more than 7,000 hours seeking further sightings. They had six, all of which were too fleeting for photography. Ultimately, Luneau reasoned that their best bet was to leave a video camera running constantly. He captured four seconds of footage showing the bird taking off from the trunk of a tupelo tree.

Carter Roberts, president of the World Wildlife Fund, summed up the emotions of many Thursday: “For a passionate birder like me, the search for the ivory-billed is the stuff of North American legend. This is monumental news for those who spent years trying to confirm that the species was still soaring through the swamps of Arkansas.”

Scientists do not know how many ivory-billed woodpeckers there are in the region or, indeed, whether they have actually seen many or just one male. Because their lifespan is about 16 years, however, Fitzpatrick speculated that there was at least one breeding pair.

And why now? Researchers said the Big Woods area had been in the process of restoration for several years and was now about 40% along the way toward maturity. Restoration has probably provided new food and nesting sites for what might have been a very small group of the birds, allowing their numbers to expand to a point where they began to come into more contact with humans.

“In the end, these incredible birds remind us of a fundamental truth of biology -- life finds a way, if we just give it enough room,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark of Defenders of Wildlife.