Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

  • Posted 06.25.08
  • NOVA scienceNOW

(This video is no longer available for streaming.) Once upon a time there was a woodpecker, a big beautiful one, that lived in the woods in the American South. But as people crowded in and the forests got smaller, this ivory-billed woodpecker began to disappear. The last firm sighting was in 1944, and after that, it became a kind of ghost. Until recently, when an ivory-billed woodpecker was sighted, even filmed. Maybe.

Running Time: 06:52


Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

PBS air date: January 10, 2006

ROBERT KRULWICH: Once upon a time there was a woodpecker, a big beautiful one; that lived in the woods in the American south. But as people crowded in and the forests got smaller, this Ivory-billed Woodpecker began to disappear. The last firm sighting was in 1944, and after that, it became a kind of ghost. People who love birds and love watching birds, insisted, "It's still out there. It's alive. It's wild. It's surviving." But when they looked, and a lot of them looked, there was no proof. And then recently, as you may have heard, something happened, maybe. Reporter Carla Wohl picks up the story.

CARLA WOHL: It happened here in Arkansas' Big Woods, a swamp that's been described as "America's Amazon."

TIM GALLAGHER (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology): It suddenly burst out in front of us and flew across the bayou into the light. And then we both yelled, "Ivory bill!"

MELANIE DRISCOLL (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology): When I first saw the bird, even though it was at a distance and it was naked-eye, I thought, "Oh my God, that's it!"

CARLA WOHL: Eyewitness sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker—the Lord God bird, as people used to call it—old black and white footage doesn't do it justice. It was spectacular, with a call no serious bird watcher could resist.

When University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor David Luneau heard that the woodpecker had been spotted in the swamp, he grabbed his video camera...

DAVID LUNEAU (University of Arkansas at Little Rock): I keep mine running the whole time.

CARLA WOHL: ...and joined the search party.

DAVID LUNEAU: All aboard?

CARLA WOHL: All aboard.

DAVID LUNEAU: It's probably closing in on 1,000 hours.

CARLA WOHL: A thousand hours looking and listening for the Ivory bill.

DAVID LUNEAU: I heard a woodpecker tapping over there but he stopped.

CARLA WOHL: He searches from dawn to dusk.

DAVID LUNEAU: Woodcock, yeah, oh cool.

CARLA WOHL: "Eighty percent of bird watching," he will tell you, "is listening."

DAVID LUNEAU: Pileated woodpecker—we've heard...that's our third one we've heard today, and we haven't seen one yet.

CARLA WOHL: One day in April of 2004, Luneau was puttering along, his video camera propped up in the canoe.

DAVID LUNEAU: I just left it running. I had it recording like I always do when I come out.

CARLA WOHL: And this is what the camera saw: a good shot of his brother-in-law in the front of the boat, and there, just above the paddle handle, some movement. Even when you zoom in, it's fuzzy, a flash of white. The amount of white you see there is going to be very important.

DAVID LUNEAU: I said, "Did you see that? Did you see that? Did you see the white on that bird?"

CARLA WOHL: When he got home, he downloaded the video to a computer and examined it frame by frame.

DAVID LUNEAU: And you see a flash of white?


DAVID LUNEAU: That's the back of the bird as the wing is starting to unfold.

CARLA WOHL: He came to believe the bird was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, though at first he wasn't sure.

Kind of blurry.

DAVID LUNEAU: Yeah, not "kind of blurry." Go ahead.


DAVID LUNEAU: It's blurry.

CARLA WOHL: Blurry or not, this scrap of video is the only hard visual evidence in a controversy over whether or not the Ivory bill has come back from the dead.

JOHN FITZPATRICK (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology): It's a woodpecker with exactly the color pattern of an Ivory bill Woodpecker.

CARLA WOHL: John Fitzpatrick, the head of Cornell's respected lab of ornithology, is unequivocal.

JOHN FITZPATRICK: Absolutely. The Ivory bill has broadly white throughout. So here's a bird with white in its back and broad white on the back end of its wings. It could only be an Ivory bill.

JEROME JACKSON (Florida Gulf Coast University): The video is clearly not an Ivory bill.

CARLA WOHL: Jerome Jackson, an ornithologist at Florida Gulf Coast University, is not convinced.

JEROME JACKSON: "Found! Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ivory bill Woodpecker!" I think there should be a question mark there instead of an exclamation point.

CARLA WOHL: Jackson has studied woodpeckers for 40 years. He says the bird on the video is the Pileated woodpecker, the Ivory bills' smaller cousin, still abundant in the Arkansas woods.

JEROME JACKSON: I think I'm looking at a Pileated woodpecker in flight. And looking at the backside of the birds wings...as a Pileated is flying, its wings are held back like this, and so the white is in a different position then you would normally see on the Pileated woodpecker. It's holding its wings as if it were paddles, paddling though the air.

JOHN FITZPATRICK: We're not looking at the underside of a wing here, we're looking at the upper side of a wing. From above, we see this huge white patch along the back end of the wing of an Ivory bill, and we see just a little bit of white on a Pileated, with a jet black back.

CARLA WOHL: Fitzpatrick backs up his argument with audio evidence. They have set up microphones in the woods and in 17,000 hours of recordings have something that sounds like the Ivory bill's call.

RUSS CHARIF (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology): It's sort of a, "eh-eh-eh."

CARLA WOHL: Russ Charif is one of Cornell's audio experts. He plays the only known recording of the bird, made in 1935.

[Bird call]

RUSS CHARIF: And now, a portion of a recording that we made on January 29th, 2005.

[Bird call]

CARLA WOHL: Jackson still is not convinced.

JEROME JACKSON: Those recordings are not definitive of Ivory bill; they could possibly...could be a blue jay.

CARLA WOHL: Possibly, says Charif, but the last note of their calls is different. Again, here's the one Charif says may be the Ivory bill.

[Bird call]

RUSS CHARIF: So you can see there's one, two, three. And then this fourth one is a little bit lower.

CARLA WOHL: And now a blue jay:

RUSS CHARIF: All at the same frequency.

[Bird call]

CARLA WOHL: Still, Charif admits the audio is not conclusive. What they really need to prove the Ivory bill is alive, is a good clear picture.

DAVID LUNEAU: This looks like as good as spot as any, I guess.

CARLA WOHL: And so Luneau is placing motion-detecting cameras in promising places...

DAVID LUNEAU: A total, now, of 10 cameras.

CARLA WOHL: ...hoping to capture a snapshot of the Ivory bill. In the 623 photos taken so far, there are some pretty good pictures of the Pileated woodpecker, but not the elusive...

DAVID LUNEAU: ...but not the elusive Ivory bill.

JEROME JACKSON: What we have is a good hypothesis that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers might be out there. They've given us hope, and I like that hope. I would like to think that they have survived...

DAVID LUNEAU: I mean, it's got woodpecker chisel marks as opposed to...

JEROME JACKSON: ...and that we might have a chance to bring them back.

DAVID LUNEAU: We share some sort of collective guilt about having destroyed the habitat that took this bird out and a lot of other creatures to the brink of extinction. And we've got a chance to keep the species going. We've got another chance here.


Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0229297.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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