Thursday, April 28, 2005

Good news, everyone!

Iconic Bird Back from the Dead -- Stokstad 2005 (428): 1 -- sciencenow:
A woodpecker believed extinct for 60 years has turned up in Arkansas. The ivory-billed woodpecker, one of the world's largest, once lived throughout the southeastern United States. But extensive clear-cutting destroyed its habitat, and by the mid-20th-century, the red-crested bird was thought to have vanished. Now, a team of ornithologists today reports evidence online in Science of at least one living in a wildlife refuge in east-central Arkansas. "It's very convincing," comments Jeffrey Walters, an ornithologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. "It's almost impossible that it could be anything else."

That certainty is welcome news, given a long record of disappointment over the years. "It's been like Elvis," says Frank Gill, chief scientist of the National Audubon Society. "Every year there are reports of sightings, but no one ever gets a picture."

But in February 2004, a promising report of an ivory-billed sighting prompted Tim Gallagher of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and avid birder Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, to visit the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. A large woodpecker spread its wings directly in front of their canoe, revealing a broad white patch that's characteristic of the ivory-bill. "Bobby sat down on a log, put his face in his hands, and began to sob, saying, 'I saw an ivory-bill. I saw an ivory-bill,'" Gallagher recalled. In a statement, he confessed he had been too choked with emotion to speak.

The video in the supplementary material shows nothing, but if they saw the white flash, that's what they saw. They also heard calls. The Cornell Ornithology Lab is the best around, so I'm prepared to trust them. That said, one quick sighting and some sounds is a little sketchy, but at least we know where to look.

Why is this different from Sasquatch? First, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers existed. They are in museums and we know how they acted. Second, sightings have persisted in good habitat for years, though confirmation has been tough.

The feds have done the right thing, setting aside the land in question as a reserve, preparing a conservation plan, and setting aside money for study and recovery in the area. This is how it's supposed to work.