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`Elvis' sightings helped keep woodpecker's existence secret

BAYOU DEVIEW, Ark.—Scientists kept the biggest secret in biology for 14 months while they worked on plans to protect the ivory-billed woodpecker.

In February 2004, Gene Sparling, an amateur but experienced birder, made the first known sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker in 60 years, but he and more than two dozen scientists, conservationists, politicians, reporters and even three girls aged 11 to 14 managed to keep the secret until April 2005.

This allowed the Nature Conservancy to buy up some nearby land and get options on more, the federal government to work on woodpecker protection plans, and scientists to keep studying and notch six more confirmed sightings of the bird.

It was crucial to keeping the bird and its habitat from being overrun and to allow scientists to make sure of what they saw, said Scott Simon, Arkansas director of the Nature Conservancy.

The researchers even kept their own colleagues—and in some cases their own families—in the dark. So they had to find a way to refer to what they were doing without letting others in on their secret.

Enter Elvis Presley and the much-spoofed rumors that he's still alive.

Whenever scientists spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker here they'd refer in e-mails and phone calls to seeing Elvis to try to keep the world from flooding this swamp with sightseers before they were ready, said Jon Andrew, regional chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, one of the handful of federal officials in on the secret. As they looked for the birds' roosts, they referred to the hunt as tracking Priscilla, Elvis' wife.

The messages were "we just found Elvis," Andrew said.

Colleagues who heard these messages but weren't in on the secret "thought we were joking around," said Sam Hamilton, regional chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Scientists kept spotting Elvis: seven times officially, 16 times less-confirmed. And yet, the ivory-billed woodpecker remained extinct to the rest of the world.

For fourteen months, it was Simon's job to keep a lid on. People raised suspicions, but no one squealed until National Public Radio got wind, he said. Simon said the radio network was let in on the search and agreed to keep quiet for a while until just before the April announcement, which was timed with a peer-review study in the top-of-the-line peer-reviewed research journal Science.

Tim Barksdale, a videographer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who would travel from his Montana home to Arkansas regularly to join in the search, had to keep his brother-in-law, who lived 15 miles from the search zone, in the dark for more than a year.

But Barksdale and Sparling did tell their daughters, who spent the summer of 2004 together, but asked them to not tell anyone.

"My 11-year-old and 14-year-old daughters held the secret for 14 months," Sparling said with a big smile. "Aren't they good kids?"

At the first celebration Saturday of the birds' sighting, there was entertainment: An Elvis impersonator.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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