Wednesday, May 04, 2005

THE DESCRIPTIONS in the Los Angeles Times of the definitive sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was thought to be extinct, are very moving.

Ivory-billed woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis) once roamed freely through the extensive cypress swamps and pine forests of the Southeast.

Biologist E.O. Wilson called them "the signature bird" of the Southern coastal plain. They are large black-and-white birds, 19 to 21 inches long, that are second in size only to the imperial woodpecker of Mexico. ...

The bird was one of six North American bird species that were thought to have gone extinct since 1880.

The current surge of interest began on Feb. 11, 2004, when amateur ornithologist Gene M. Sparling III of Hot Springs, Ark., saw what he thought was an ivory-billed woodpecker while kayaking in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, halfway between Little Rock and Memphis, Tenn., and reported it to a bird-watchers' website.

A week later, Tim W. Gallagher, editor of the Cornell lab of ornithology's Living Bird magazine, and Bobby R. Harrison of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., interviewed him and were so impressed by his account that they accompanied him on a second trip.

On Feb. 27, a large black-and-white woodpecker flew less than 70 feet in front of their canoe on the bayou. Both simultaneously cried out, "Ivory-bill!"

After they finished their notes and sketches of the bird, Gallagher said, "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 said he was speechless after the sighting. "Just to think that this bird made it into the 21st century gives me chills," he said. "It's like a funeral shroud has been pulled back, giving us a glimpse of a living bird, rising Lazarus-like from the grave." ...

And why now? Researchers said the Big Woods area had been in the process of restoration for several years and was now about 40% along the way toward maturity. Restoration has probably provided new food and nesting sites for what might have been a very small group of the birds, allowing their numbers to expand to a point where they began to come into more contact with humans.

"In the end, these incredible birds remind us of a fundamental truth of biology — life finds a way, if we just give it enough room," said Jamie Rappaport Clark of Defenders of Wildlife.

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