December 12, 2005

‘Elvis’ Woodpecker Draws Searchers

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON -- It has starred in a video, been widely recorded and graced the cover of a prestigious magazine.

But to dispel any doubt the ivory-billed woodpecker -- the Elvis of the bird world -- is back from extinction, searchers are combing a corner of Arkansas in an intensive six-month hunt.

On foot, in canoes and kayaks, even using cherry-picker vehicles that tower over the forest canopy, teams of volunteers and paid workers have been looking for traces of the big bird in the forests and swamps of the White River and Cache River basins, just west of the Mississippi.

"The thrust of it is to find out more: find the birds and then learn more about what they do, how they live, where their habitat is, how many there are," said Jon Andrew of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is working with conservation groups and academic experts in the search.

It was in the Cache River Basin nearly two years ago that amateur naturalist Gene Sparling glimpsed an ivory-billed woodpecker. About the size of a large crow, ivory-bills are jet black with bright white patches along the back edge of the wings. Males have red crests; females' crests are black.

The last reliable sighting before Sparling's was in 1944, and most ornithologists had considered it extinct. Since Sparling shared his experience, experts from Cornell University and elsewhere have seen the bird too. There have been several photographs and multiple audio recordings of the elusive woodpeckers.

A four-second video made by David Luneau, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, recorded an ivory-bill's flight, and analysis of the video confirmed the bird's identity. The journal Science published the analysis, and ran a color illustration of the bird on its cover.


This is the first winter searching season since the ivory-bill's media splash in April. Back then, bird experts were at pains to describe the magnitude of the discovery. The Audubon Society's senior ornithologist, Frank Gill, said then, "It's kind of like finding Elvis."

The woodpecker's appearance is so striking it has earned the nickname the "Lord God" bird, because people would exclaim, "Lord God what a woodpecker" on first spotting one.

Andrew has never seen one, but considers the evidence conclusive. Asked what would silence all doubters, Andrew said a bird in the hand would be definitive, but good, clear video or an eggshell fragment or feather would help put questions to rest.

"To me the Holy Grail of this is a nest or a roost tree, where we can get a camera on it, monitor it and you can go on your laptop computer and watch an ivory-bill fly into its roost hole at night," Andrew said in an interview. "No one's going to argue with that for confirmation."

This winter's search began in November and is likely to continue until April, while trees are bare and teams can see and hear farther in the forest.

In addition to visual evidence, automatic audio recorders posted at various locations have picked up the distinctive call and double-knock tap of the ivory-bill.

What happens if they find one?

The first priority is protecting the bird, and treating it if it is injured, Andrew said. That could include closing off the area, he said, though wildlife officials plan to work closely with local communities to avoid cramping their style.

So far, he said, local residents had been supportive.

Signs describing the ivory-bill have weathered well in Arkansas, Andrew said. "We have signs that were put up in April that have not one bullet hole in them -- which is a reflection, I think, of the community's reaction to the bird."