"Deep In the Swamp, an 'Extinct' Woodpecker Lives"

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"Deep In the Swamp, an 'Extinct' Woodpecker Lives"

Newspaper article

By: James Gorman

Date: April 29, 2005

Source: Gorman, James. "Deep In the Swamp, an 'Extinct' Woodpecker Lives." New York Times (April 29, 2005).

About the Author: James Gorman is editor of the "Science Times" section of the New York Times.


After last having been sighted and photographed in Cuba in 1948, an ivory-billed woodpecker, believed to have become extinct, was spotted in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge (the Big Woods) in Arkansas on February 11, 2004. Gene Sparling, who spotted the bird while kayaking on the river, eventually met up with Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine, and Bobby Harrison, associate professor at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. On February 27, 2004, all three of them went kayaking on the Cache, again catching a glimpse of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Following these two sightings, Sparling, Gallagher, and Harrison formed a larger search team, the Big Woods Conservation Partnership. On April 5, 10, and 11, three other searchers sighted an ivorybilled woodpecker in the same vicinity. On April 25, 2004, David Luneau, associate professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, recorded four seconds of video footage of an ivory-billed woodpecker perched on and then alighting from the trunk of a tupelo tree. On February 14, 2005, Casey Taylor of the Cornell Lab saw an ivory-billed woodpecker in flight in the midst of a flock of crows.

Sight of the bird has encouraged greater search efforts, especially to discover if any breeding pairs of ivory-billed woodpeckers exist. Their existence would, of course, be a surer sign that the bird has come back from the brink of extinction. Since its rediscovery, only one woodpecker has been spotted at each sighting, and searchers have only covered some 16 square miles (42 square kilometers) of the 850 square miles (2,200 square kilometers) of wetlands. Whether it is the same bird or not, observers do not know. If it is the only one, then it is just as likely the last ivory-billed woodpecker as the harbinger of the ivory-billed woodpecker's return. There is cause for optimism, however, since the life span of the ivory-billed woodpecker is between fifteen and twenty years, which would indicate that the woodpecker spotted in 2004 was hatched well after the last sighting in 1948 (some sources say 1944).

The ivory-billed woodpecker is an extraordinary bird with a long, powerful, ivory-colored beak. It has a wingspan of over 30 inches (76 centimeters) when its wings are fully extended. The male's plumed, scarlettufted head was a valuable trophy among the tribes indigenous to the bird's habitat and to later generations of hunters, collectors, and even ornithologists. It was partly for that reason that the bird was wiped out. The destruction of its habitat also has accounted for its disappearance.

Historically, the ivory-billed woodpecker was found in old-growth wetland forests of the southeastern United States and Cuba. It found congenial habitat from east Texas to North Carolina, from southern Illinois through Florida and south to Cuba. In the United States it lived among swampy bottomland hardwood forests, inside deep old-growth woods. It fed on insects, beetle larvae, fruits, and nuts. The beetle larvae were particularly important to the bird for the strength of its bill. The larvae (unhatched eggs) lay under the bark of recently dead trees. In order to get to the beetle larvae, the woodpeckers stripped the bark from the trunks of those trees, to which it still clung tightly, using their powerful bills. Since the European settlement of North America, however, the amount of wetland forest that served as habitat for the ivory-billed woodpecker has shrunk drastically, from 24 million acres (9.7 million hectares) to a little over 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares).


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Just as the disappearance of the ivory-billed woodpecker indicated how badly the American forests and wetlands had been undervalued and destroyed, so the return of the woodpecker bespeaks the importance of the forests and wetlands and the value of the programs already instituted to preserve them. In great measure, by reconstituting the natural environment, they have contributed to the bird's reappearance. Although the ivory-billed woodpecker was sighted in February 2004, the announcement of its rediscovery was held back for over a year in order to set in place further environmental protections for the bird. The United States Government, conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy, and naturalist institutions like the ornithological laboratory at Cornell University began to work together to establish programs to continue to search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, to safeguard its environment, and to promote ecological balance.

The reappearance of the ivory-billed woodpecker also offers hope that the forest can be restored to its primeval conditions and is a spur to further endeavors to reclaim lands touching the Big Woods in Arkansas, where the bird was found. Such ecological restoration will not only support the ivory-billed woodpecker, but it will ensure the health of the forest rivers, create continuous stretches of forest, enrich the earth, and provide habitat for black bears, water fowl, and many other species that cannot survive without the wetlands and the woods.



Hoose, Phillip. The Race To Save the Lord God Bird. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

Jackson, Jerome A. In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2004.


Fitzpatrick, John W., et al. "Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America." Science 307, 5772 (2005).

Web sites

Cornell Lab of Ornithology."Rediscovering the Ivory-billed Woodpecker." 〈http://birds.cornell.edu/ivory〉 (accessed November 8, 2005).

The Nature Conservancy "The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Has Returned." 〈http://www.nature.org/ivorybill/search〉 (accessed November 8, 2005).

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"Deep In the Swamp, an 'Extinct' Woodpecker Lives"

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"Deep In the Swamp, an 'Extinct' Woodpecker Lives"