Back From The Dead?

Ivory-billed woodpeckers – photo taken in Louisiana in 1935 (Photo from By Arthur A. Allen – http://extinct-website.co.uk/product_info.php?manufacturers_id=12&products_id=528, 

Dear Readers, we could all do with some good news at the moment I’m sure, and so it gives me great pleasure to let you know that the ivory-billed woodpecker, one of the largest woodpeckers in the world, might not be extinct after all. As elusive as the Loch Ness Monster, this bird has been the Holy Grail of birdwatchers since its last universally accepted sighting in 1944. Since then it has been declared extinct, but as it lives in the dense swamps and wetlands of the American Deep South it’s always been thought possible that it might be going about its business unobserved.

A three-year project in the area, however, has involved setting up camera traps and audio recording equipment. Steve Latta, who is leading the research, said that every member of the team had heard the bird’s call (which apparently sounds like a child’s tin trumpet). But Latta also had a close encounter with the bird:

Latta himself saw the bird fly upwards in front of him, showing the distinctive white edges to its wings. “It flew up at an angle and I watched it for about six to eight seconds, which was fairly long for an ivory-billed woodpecker,” he said. “I was surprised. I was visibly shaking afterwards. You realize you’ve seen something special that very few people had the opportunity to see.”

The size and the markings of the bird captured in the photos is strong evidence that it is not another woodpecker, such as a pileated or red-headed woodpecker, Latta said. “It reinforced to me that, yes, this bird does exist and left me feeling a sense of responsibility to protect it for the future,” he said.”

Ivory-billed woodpeckers as illustrated by John James Audubon in ‘Birds of America’

The poor old ivory-billed woodpecker has suffered from habitat destruction and being shot, so no wonder it wants to keep a low profile. Apparently it flies as soon as it sees human beings, and who can blame it? Even Audubon, doyen of bird illustrators, often shot his subjects. I would love to believe that this bird still exists, though doubters say that the researchers are seeing pileated woodpeckers, a similar species. In a way, our insistence that it is extinct and not merely hiding is yet another example of our arrogance. How could a bird this big possibly escape our notice? It reminds me a little of when Western scientists ‘discover’ an animal that local people have always known about. Anyhow, fingers crossed, and let’s let scientist Geoffrey Hill, who also led an expedition to try to find the bird, have the last word.

“People who are into birds are fascinated by them. Ivory bills couldn’t care less, though. They hate all people.”

For the whole article, and some more photos, have a look here.

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