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Birders giddy after vanished woodpecker makes appearance

Published Apr. 29, 2005
Updated Aug. 25, 2005

The ivory-billed woodpecker, a colorful and magnificent bird that disappeared 60 years ago, has been widely believed to be as dead as the dodo _ until now.

Last seen in 1944, the ivory bill has been rediscovered, scientists and conservationists announced Thursday. A series of sightings over the past year have convinced them the fabled "Lord God Bird" has been hiding in the wilderness of eastern Arkansas.

"Just to think this bird made it into the 21st century gives me chills," said Tim Gallagher, one of a pair of scientists who spotted it during a canoe trip last year. "It's like a funeral shroud has been pulled back, giving us a glimpse of a living bird, rising Lazarus-like from the grave."

Known as the Holy Grail of dedicated birders, the ivory bill is one of the largest species of woodpecker in the world. Prized by American Indians who believed that its chisel-sized bill possessed magical powers, the bird was hunted in the late 1800s for its feathers, popular on ladies hats.

But it was loss of habitat that drove it to the brink of extinction. Large-scale logging felled thousands of acres of forest in the Southeast between the 1880s and 1940s, wiping out most of the old-growth trees where ivory bills like to nest.

The ivory-billed woodpecker once ranged across Florida and the rest of the Southeast. Sometimes called the white-back, pearly bill, poule de bois and the Lord God Bird, the ivory bill was known for the two-note boom of its bill as it ripped into tree bark in search of edible grubs and beetle larvae.

In the 1920s, Floridians called the birds "Good Lords," because when they hammered on a tree everyone would say, "Good Lord, what's THAT?"

Florida was the bird's North American stronghold because of the state's warm climate and swampy terrain, according to Jerome Jackson, a Florida Gulf Coast University professor who has spent 30 years searching for ivory bills through the wilds of Cuba and the American South. Collectors found them by the hundreds in Florida in the 1890s.

Thirty years later, they were all but gone. The last confirmed sighting in Florida occurred near Orlando in 1924, he said.

The ornithologist who photographed the Orlando pair planned to come back and study them. Instead two taxidermists, with permits from the state, killed them and stuffed them, Jackson said. Their carcasses went to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

In the 1960s and 1970s there were unconfirmed reports of ivory bills around Highland Hammocks State Park, near the Suwannee River, Jackson said. In his book, In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, he ranked Florida as one of the most likely places for them to turn up again.

Ornithologists and amateur birders have searched for decades for proof that there were still ivory bills. The last conclusive sighting in continental North America was in 1944 in Louisiana, although Jackson caught a glimpse of one in Cuba in 1988.

With no further confirmed sightings, some experts became convinced that the ivory bill had joined the passenger pigeon, the great auk, the Labrador duck, the heath hen and the dusky seaside sparrow on the list of extinct species.

Frequent reports that the bird had been spotted again were usually dismissed because a common relative, the pileated woodpecker, resembles the ivory bill. The ivory bill is larger, though _ about 20 inches tall with a wingspan of almost a yard and dramatic plumage of red, black and white.

In 1997 a conservative think-tank, the National Wilderness Institute, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take the ivory bill off the endangered species list, arguing that it made no sense to protect a species that no longer existed.

But two years later, when the wildlife agency prepared a list of animals to be protected during Everglades restoration, it dutifully included the ivory-billed woodpecker.

"There's always a glimmer of hope you're going to find one someday," explained federal biologist Dawn Jennings.

The Nature Conservancy, which has protected a large segment of land in Arkansas where the bird was spotted, reported that the first sighting came on Feb. 11, 2004, by Gene Sparling, an avid kayaker from Hot Springs, Ark.

Two weeks later, Gallagher, editor of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Living Bird magazine, and Bobby Harrison, a professor at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., set off in a canoe to search Arkansas' Big Woods, 550,000 acres of bottomland forest, bayous and oxbow lakes.

As they paddled along, a large black-and-white bird suddenly swooped from a tree about 70 feet away. Both men shouted, "Ivory bill!"

Each sketched the bird, then compared notes. Convinced at last, Harrison sat on a log, put his hands over his face and began to sob.

"I saw an ivory bill," he said. "I saw an ivory bill."

Two months later, a search team of field biologists headed by Cornell and the Nature Conservancy spotted the woodpecker again. A researcher even captured on videotape four seconds of a bird alighting from a tupelo tree. In all, there have been 15 sightings during more than 7,000 hours of searching. They're uncertain how many different birds have been seen.

"Second chances to save wildlife once thought to be extinct are rare," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said at a news conference Thursday. "We will take advantage of this opportunity."

Norton and Agriculture Secretary Mikle Johanns promised federal assistance to work with the state and local residents to protect this bird.

"Don't love this bird to death," Norton added, saying there has not been time to make plans for dealing with the expected demands by the public to view and photograph the modern-day phoenix.

Information from the New York Times and the Associated Press was used in this story.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

To see the video of the ivory-billed woodpecker, go to: http://wid.ap.org/ video/woodpecker.mov

To read Jeff Klinkenberg's story about one man's lifelong search for the ivory-billed woodpecker go to: www.sptimes.com/2004/10/07/ Weekend/Hishopehaswings.shtml