Multiple sightings of long-lost woodpecker reported

April 28, 2005

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Observers in eastern Arkansas have reported at least eight independent sightings of a bird that appears to be an ivory-billed woodpecker, a species widely thought to be extinct. A video clip of one bird, though blurry, shows key features, including the size and markings, indicating that the bird is indeed an ivory-billed woodpecker, according to John W. Fitzpatrick of Cornell University and coauthors of a paper released online today by Science.

One of the world's largest woodpeckers, the ivory-billed woodpecker is one of six North American bird species suspected or known to have become extinct since 1880. The bird was uncommon but widespread across lowland forests of the southeastern United States until logging decimated the forests between 1880 and the 1940s.

The last conclusive sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker in continental North America occurred in 1944, although anecdotal reports have continued to this day. Reports from the 1980s of a subspecies of ivory-billed woodpecker in Cuba are widely accepted as valid, though efforts to confirm the continued existence of this population have failed.

The sightings, each by a different person or team, occurred during the last two years within three kilometers of one another in the "Big Woods" region of Arkansas, which includes swamps and bottomland hardwood forests. Despite extensive search efforts, the authors were not able to determine how many individual birds were actually encountered.

While about 40 percent of the forest in this region is currently approaching maturity, the younger trees are growing rapidly and additional land nearby has been reforested in the last decade. If a few breeding pairs do exist, most of the conditions thought to be required for successful population growth are becoming increasingly available, the authors say.

By magnifying and analyzing individual frames of the video clip, Fitzpatrick and his colleagues identified the bird as an ivory-billed woodpecker based on several criteria. The size, specifically the distance from wing to tail, is appropriate for an ivory-billed woodpecker and larger than that of the pileated woodpecker, which has a similar appearance to the ivory-billed woodpecker.

The wing patterns both at rest and in flight reveal the diagnostic black and white markings of the species. White plumage is also evident on the bird's back, and a characteristic black-white-black pattern shown against a tree in certain frames also supports the identification of the bird.
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