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For 50 years the ivory-billed woodpecker has been widely considered extinct. But the Elvis of the bird-watching world is alive in eastern Arkansas, bird experts announced today. (Watch a video on the discovery from the Nature Conservancy [requires Windows Media Player].)
Ornithologists reported the bird's rediscovery in a remote area of wetland forest.
The discovery "is huge, just huge," said Frank Gill, senior ornithologist at the New York City-based National Audubon Society. "It is kind of like finding Elvis."
"Through the 20th century it's been every birder's fantasy to catch a glimpse of this bird, however remote the possibility," added John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. "This really is the holy grail."
Among the world's largest woodpeckers, the ivory-bill is one of six North American bird species suspected or known to have gone extinct since 1880. The last conclusive sighting of the woodpecker was in Louisiana in 1944.
The black-and- white bird's disappearance followed extensive logging in the southeastern U.S., which decimated the woodpecker's habitat of mature virgin forests.
Since then this charismatic species has become the Elvis of the bird world, with whisperings over the years that it might still be alive in some secret hideaway. Experts remained highly skeptical. That is, until now.
Eight independent sightings have been reported since early 2004 in the Big Woods region of eastern Arkansas, a 550,000-acre (220,000- hectare) corridor of swamps and floodplain forests. The reports all came within two miles (three kilometers) of one another.
Key features of the sighted birds, including size and markings, all point to the long-lost woodpecker, according to Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick headed a team that assessed the woodpecker sightings. Their findings will be published in the journal Science.
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The first report came in February 2004, when a kayaker spotted what's described as "an unusually large, red-crested woodpecker flying towards him and landing near the base of a tree 20 meters [about 22 yards] away."
"He noticed enough of the markings to suspect it was an ivory-billed woodpecker," Fitzpatrick said.
At least seven further visual encounters occurred over the next year. Crucially, one sighting was captured on video. "It's a pretty crumby video, yet remarkable and historic," Fitzpatrick added. "It had all the necessary ingredients for a definitive identification."
Though the images are fleeting and blurred, extensive analysis of the video by Fitzpatrick and his team revealed the telltale features of an ivory-bill:
• The bird's size matched the species's estimated 19.5-inch (50-centimeter) length, from beak to tail tip. The length of the tail was particularly revealing.
• The bird's wing patterns, both at rest and in flight, had the black-and-white markings characteristic of an ivory-billed woodpecker.
• The bird's back had a conspicuous area of white plumage.
Fitzpatrick says these key markers clearly distinguish the bird from the smaller but similar- looking pileated woodpecker. Previous unconfirmed reports of ivory- billed woodpeckers in the southern U.S. were considered highly suspect by experts, because pileated woodpeckers are widespread in the region.
So far the presence of only a single ivory-bill male can be confirmed. "We cannot rule out the possibility that all of our fleeting encounters involved the same bird," Fitzpatrick said.
However, he believes other ivory-bills are almost certainly out there. He says the difficulty in detecting them may be due to the bird's extremely low population density. The last known population of ivory-bills, in northeastern Louisiana, had a density of one pair per 6 square miles (16 square kilometers) of forest.
"This discovery raises the possibility that there are other places where this bird persisted through ... the 20th century," Fitzpatrick added.
Until the 1870s the ivory-bill was widespread, though uncommon, in lowland primary forests of the southeastern U.S. (See a 1938 picture of an ivory-bill on a man's head.) The bird strips the bark off dying trees with its powerful beak to get to insect grubs beneath.
The bird's disappearance coincided with extensive logging throughout the region, which continued up to the 1940s.
Hunting by professional collectors accelerated the extinction of remaining populations until the bird was given up as extinct. The last documented ivory-bill was seen over logged forestland in 1944.
A subspecies of the woodpecker may have survived in Cuba. Experts reported brief sightings of at least two individuals in 1986 and 1987. However, subsequent efforts to confirm the existence of this population failed.
Even if few breeding pairs survive in the Big Woods of Arkansas, the study team says that prospects for population growth look good. Additions to the publicly owned wildlife refuge lands and habitat- restoration efforts are reestablishing the mature hardwood forests in the area.
Currently about a hundred thousand acres (40,470 hectares) of the Big Woods are protected and conserved, according to Scott Simon, director of the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas. There is a plan to conserve and restore an additional 200,000 acres (80,940 hectares) of critical habitat over the next ten years, Simon added.
Fitzpatrick, the Cornell University ornithologist, said, "The bottomland [or floodplain] forests are growing back, so there are places with 4- and 5-foot-diameter [1.2- and 1.5-meter-diameter] trees again, including those that are beginning to die as they get to a mature stature. That's the kind of forest that ivory-bills need.
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"The conditions are only going to get better," he added, "so it's possible that the worst for this bird is past, and with proper management these forests could support growing populations again."
Fitzpatrick sees the ivory-bill as a powerful symbol of the forests of the Deep South. "The lure of the wild and the lure of the beauty of birds and the lure of the mysterious-and-possibly-gone is enveloped in the idea of this bird."