WASHINGTON—Not seen for 60 years, the ivory-billed woodpecker—called "the flagship of American extinction"—is alive and soaring through Arkansas' ancient cypress swamps.
In an announcement Thursday termed "a ray of hope" amid gloomy news about Earth's environment, scientists revealed that during the past 14 months veteran naturalists have spotted the largest American woodpecker seven separate times. They even captured it on a blurry video once.
"It was a spiritual experience," said Gene Sparling, an entrepreneur and naturalist who was the first to see the bird. He spotted the male woodpecker on Feb. 11, 2004, while kayaking alone in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Arkansas.
In a later confirmatory sighting, the woodpecker swooped directly over two experienced birders, who had accompanied Sparling to find the elusive woodpecker. That caused the startled duo to simultaneously yell "ivory-bill," rock their canoe and scare off the very bird they were looking for.
"The thing just veered away and went flying off through the woods," said one of the two, Tim Gallagher, the editor-in-chief of a magazine published by the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University. Gallagher also wrote a book on the rediscovery, which was published Thursday.
What is just as elusive as the bird, which typically is about 20 inches long and weighs 1 pound, is knowing whether the sightings were of a single woodpecker or several different ones.
Dozens of scientists have surveyed only about 5 percent of the 550,000-acre Big Woods where the woodpecker was spotted. But they hope that as many as 30 may be living there.
The journal Science on Thursday published a peer-reviewed account of the discovery online. More than 20 scientists have viewed the video and confirmed the sightings, said Cornell lab director John Fitzpatrick, head of the ivory-bill search effort.
Fitzpatrick called the ivory-bill "the flagship of our collapsed ecosystems. It's a flagship of the blunders of excess in overharvesting. And in the world of birding, nothing could have been more hoped for than this Holy Grail."
In the past 85 years, scientists have three times pronounced the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct, said Jerome Jackson, an environmental studies professor at Florida Gulf Coast University who wrote the book "In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker." The bird was never put on the government's official extinct list, though. It remains on the endangered species list.
The magnificent red-headed bird with snow white patches on its back and tail feathers once soared through much of the southeastern United States before its old hardwood habitat was lost to development and logging. It was also killed and stuffed by collectors.
The woodpecker was first declared extinct in the early 1920s, but in 1924 two birds were found in what's now Orlando, Fla. A taxidermist got state permission to shoot and stuff those two birds and suddenly the bird was extinct again, Jackson said.
In 1932, a few more woodpeckers were found, this time in Louisiana. But during World War II, Louisiana's forest was used in the war effort. Wood from dead trees, a source of shelter and insects for the ivory-billed woodpeckers, was turned into caskets and ammunition boxes.
The last known sighting—confirmed by two veteran observers—had been in April 1944. Sporadic reports of the bird have popped up from Louisiana to Cuba since, but none were confirmed.
"The great thing about this discovery is that it fills us with hope," Fitzpatrick said. "Just maybe we didn't entirely destroy one of the most enchanting ecosystems of this great American heritage of ours. And if we do our job right, it's going to go on long in the future, and it will only get better and better."
The Bush administration jumped on the discovery, announcing $10 million in federal money to help protect the bird. Another $10 million is being spent by private conservation groups, especially the Nature Conservancy, to protect the habitat.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton said she would create a "Corridor of Hope" conservation plan to protect an area about 120 miles long and 20 miles wide in eastern Arkansas, where the woodpecker was seen. The ivory-billed woodpecker is one of seven endangered species and 265 bird species that live there.
About 320,000 acres of the swamp are publicly owned in wildlife refuges and forests, and 50,000 acres have public conservation easements to prevent the harvesting of the old hardwood trees required by the woodpecker. The most crucial part of the area for the woodpecker is on federal land that's well preserved, said Scott Simon, Arkansas director of the Nature Conservancy.
With the announcement, federal and state officials warned people not to flock to find the ivory-billed woodpecker.
"Don't love this bird to death," Norton said.
The ivory-billed is bigger and weighs 80 percent more than a bird it is commonly confused with, the pileated woodpecker. The pileated woodpecker—the model for the Woody Woodpecker cartoon character—has more red on its head, less white on back, is smaller and has a gray bill. One of the major concerns was making sure the sightings were of an ivory-billed and not a pileated.
Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College in Alabama, who saw the bird with Gallagher, said it was obvious immediately that it was an ivory-billed.
Its patches were "snow white, the whitest white we've ever seen," Harrison said.
David Willard, the collection manager of the bird division at Chicago's Field Museum, wasn't part of the Fitzpatrick team, but he viewed the video. When the video was slowed down, "my jaw was dropping as it got clearer and clearer," he said. The next day he made reservations to go to Arkansas for a two-week search.
Researchers also heard the tell-tale double-rap of the woodpecker's bill pounding on dead trees from two different directions, indicating that there likely is more than one bird. They also found about six holes high up in old trees where the birds might live.
The birds can live up to 15 years and live in small family social groups in the first two years, Fitzpatrick said. The woodpecker or woodpeckers seen were adults and likely between 1 and 5 years old, he said.
"This is really the most spectacular creature we could ever imagine," Fitzpatrick said. "It's a magical bird. It's been mysterious for a century and a half."
President Teddy Roosevelt called it "The Lord God" bird because, Fitzpatrick said, "people would drop to their knees and exclaim, `Lord God, what a bird!'"
For more information, check out the following Web sites:
The Big Woods conservation partnership's site: http://www.ivorybill.org/
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory/
The peer-reviewed article in the journal Science: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/1114103
The fact sheet on how the federal government is going to try to save the ivory-billed woodpecker: http://www.doi.gov/news/05(underscore)News(underscore)Releases/050428b
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WOODPECKER
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050428 WOODPECKER
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