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NOVA ScienceNOW

Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

  • Posted 06.25.08
  • NOVA scienceNOW

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.

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Transcript

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?

CARLA WOHL: Right.

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.

CARLA WOHL: Blurry!

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.

Credits

Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

Executive Producer
Samuel Fine
Executive Editor
Robert Krulwich
Senior Series Producer
Vincent Liota
Senior Producer
Robe Imbriano
Producers
Julia Cort
Carla Denly
Robe Imbriano
Dean Irwin
Vincent Liota
Mary Robertson
Win Rosenfeld
Editors
Ben Ehrlich
Nathan Hendrie
Robe Imbriano
Vincent Liota
Win Rosenfeld
Supervising Producer
Andrea Cross
Development Producer
Kyla Dunn
Program Editor
Steve Trevisan
Associate Producers
Anthony Manupelli
Mary Robertson
Win Rosenfeld
Ayo Babatunde
Shimona Shahi
Unit Manager
Candace White
Production Secretary
Ayo Babatunde
Compositing
Yunsik Noh
Production Assistant
Robbie Gemmel
Music
Rob Morsberger
NOVA scienceNOW Series Animation
Edgeworx
Camera
Chris Borghesani
George Delgado
Brian Dowley
Tom Fahey
Vikram Gandhi
Robert Hanna
Michael Hunkley
Sound Recordists
Paul Austin
Vikram Gandhi
Mike Karas
Dennis McCarthy
Gilles Morin
Alex Sullivan
Audio Mix
John Jenkins
Animation
Mitch Butler
Edgeworx
Picket Design
Pie Design
Special Thanks
Clifford Cunningham
Foxwoods Resort Casino
The Graduate Center at CUNY
Alex Meissner
Naturally Tasty Health Food
The New York Number Theory Seminar
The officers and crew of the NOAA ships Delaware II and Albatross IV
János Pintz
Salon Mario Russo
Cem Yildirim
Adam Zoghlin
Archival Material
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Mike Brown, Caltech
Michael Brumlik
Jewel Webb Chambers
CNN
CORBIS Motion
Michael DiGiorgio, Worldwide Nature Artists Group
Denis Finnin, American Museum of Natural History
Richard Gibbe
Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc.
Robert Hurt (IPAC)
Jupiterimages Corporation
The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
MODIS Rapid Response Project at NASA/GSF
Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University
NASA/JPL
NASA/JPL-Caltech
Jay Pitocchelli
Prairie Pictures / StormStock, Martin Lisius
24 Images
N. John Schmitt
Ultimate Chase Stock Video
Mitch Waite
WWL-TV
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NOVA Theme Music
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John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.
Additional NOVA Theme Music
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Spencer Gentry
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Dara Bourne
Publicity
Eileen Campion
Olivia Wong
Senior Researcher
Barbara Moran
Production Coordinator
Linda Callahan
Unit Managers
Lola Norman-Salako
Carla Raimer
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Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko
Post Production Assistant
Alex Kreuter
Associate Producer, Post Production
Patrick Carey
Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole
Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto
Post Production Manager
Nathan Gunner
Supervising Producer
Stephen Sweigart
Producer, Special Projects
Susanne Simpson
Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane
Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham
Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace
Managing Director
Alan Ritsko
Senior Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

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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.

© 2006 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

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