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Ivory-billed woodpecker under scrutiny

July 21, 2005 By Rex Dalton This article courtesy of Nature News.

Rediscovered species may not be out of the woods.

A team of bird experts is questioning the reported discovery of an ivory-billed woodpecker, a species that until recently was thought to be extinct.

Conservationists and bird lovers were thrilled in April by a videotape, reported in Science1, of what seemed to be an ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) in Arkansas.

No sighting of the majestic species in the United States had been confirmed since 1944; it disappeared as its dense forest habitat was chopped down, making the bird a symbol of lost heritage.

I have serious questions about the scientific support for the Science report.
Jerome Jackson
Florida Gulf Coast University
Now a team of ornithologists, led by Richard Prum of Yale University, Connecticut, plans to report a case of what it thinks is mistaken identity. The bird described in Science, the experts say, is not an ivory-billed woodpecker after all, but a non-endangered relative: a pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus).

Questions asked

Prum's team includes a leading authority on ivory-billed woodpeckers, Jerome Jackson of Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, who for decades has been unable to document a sighting. "I have serious questions about the Science report," he told Nature in May, before the team began working on its own manuscript.

Prum and his colleagues scrutinized a video taken by a Cornell University team in the forested swamps east of Little Rock, Arkansas. Detailed studies of the bird's size and white markings suggest it could be a pileated woodpecker rather than an ivory-billed, they say. The Cornell team had considered this possibility and discounted it.

The crucial video includes a four-second section in which the bird takes off from a tupelo tree in April 2004. Because the camera was mounted on the front of a canoe, and set to a wide focus, the images are frustratingly blurry.

No comment

Prum declines to discuss details of his manuscript until it is published, in a PLoS journal. The third author of the paper is Mark Robbins, an ornithologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and member of the American Birding Association's checklist committee, which confirms species sightings.

John Fitzpatrick, the Cornell ornithologist who led the Science report, and other co-authors also declined to comment. PLoS plans to publish a response from the Cornell team, and a further rebuttal from Prum's group. All three papers are expected to go online within a month.

The Science paper also included seven reported sightings by Cornell team members between February 2004 and February 2005 around the Cache River and White River national wildlife refuges. But visual observations can be suspect, and they came amid thousands of observer hours when no other sightings were made.

Watch the birdie

Prum's analysis may have significant implications for policy as well as conservation biology. The Bush administration and congressional Republicans are leading a charge to reduce species protections under the US Endangered Species Act.

For more than 30 years this legislation has sheltered threatened plants and animals, and infuriated some business and development interests. The ivory-billed woodpecker is covered under the act.

In April, after the woodpecker's reported rediscovery, the US departments of agriculture and the interior redirected about $10 million from other projects to conserve the ivory-billed's habitat. The announcement also triggered a tourist boom for rural Arkansas, with birding enthusiasts flocking to the area for a glimpse of the creature.


  1. Fitzpatrick J., et al. Science, 308. 1460 - 1462 (2005).


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