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More Proof of Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Found

August 13, 2005

ITHACA, N.Y. — Cornell University researchers will present new audio evidence supporting the existence of the phantomlike ivory-billed woodpecker Aug. 24 and 25 at the 123rd American Ornithologists’ Union meeting in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology researcher Russ Charif will begin presenting the new audio evidence at 10:30 a.m. PST Aug. 24 in Lotte Lehmann Hall at the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB). Lab members Ron Rohrbaugh and Ken Rosenberg and Director John Fitzpatrick will also make presentations.

One recording suggests the presence of at least two birds: a signature double rap that sounds like an ivory-billed woodpecker drumming on a tree from a distance followed by a closer double rap. This drumming behavior is typical of many large woodpeckers closely related with the ivory-bill. Other recordings include sounds that resemble the ivory-billed woodpecker’s distinctively nasal “kent” calls. The sounds were discovered by Cornell audio experts combing through 17,000 hours of audio files from autonomous recording units installed in the Arkansas woods and swamplands.

The ivory-billed woodpecker was thought extinct for some 60 years until bird experts, including Tim Gallagher, an editor and birder from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, claimed to have spotted it in Arkansas’ Big Woods in February 2004.

In April 2005, the online version of Science magazine published a study led by Fitzpatrick, in a partnership involving the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Nature Conservancy and other researchers. As direct evidence, the paper contained a Web link to a brief, blurry but carefully analyzed video clip of the woodpecker. Since then, several researchers, including ornithologists Richard Prum of Yale University, Mark Robbins of the University of Kansas and Jerome Jackson, a zoologist from Florida Gulf Coast University — publicly declared the evidence unconvincing and disputed it in an article submitted to the Public Library of Science (PLoS).

Other experts also stepped forward to say that the Science paper failed to provide definitive proof of the elusive woodpecker.

In response to this ongoing scientific debate, Fitzpatrick and colleagues submitted their comments to PloS. They also provided sound recordings from Arkansas as further proof of the bird’s survival.

The audio files proved so convincing that Prum, Robbins and Jackson reported that they now believe that the woodpecker exists. They immediately withdrew their paper from PLoS.

“The thrilling new sound recordings provide clear and convincing evidence that the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct,” Prum said in a statement issued by Yale Aug. 2.

“We have a lot of mysteries still to solve about this bird,” said Fitzpatrick. “But we do stand by our evidence that at least one was alive in 2004 and early 2005.”

Fitzpatrick added that the research team knew of a few of the recordings when they released video evidence of the ivory-billed woodpecker in April 2005, but they had not conducted detailed acoustic analyses.

That the bird still survives despite so many years without a verifiable sighting has prompted many people to work toward ensuring the woodpecker’s continued existence. Since the April 28 announcement of the bird’s rediscovery in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Departments of the Interior and of Agriculture have announced a multiyear, multimillion-dollar partnership to protect the bird’s habitat.

This includes more than $10 million in federal funds to protect the bird on top of an equal amount already promised by private groups and individuals. The federal money is tagged for such activities as research, monitoring, public education, conservation easements, reforestation and law enforcement.

The government also has protected 320,000 acres of public land in the Cache River area in Arkansas where the bird was spotted. The Nature Conservancy is leading an effort to expand that land to 600,000 acres, an area half the size of Delaware.

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