The bird that came back from the dead

For more than 60 years, scientists thought the ivory-billed woodpecker was extinct. Now new evidence suggests it is alive and well and living in Arkansas
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Some liken it to the avian equivalent of seeing Elvis walking down the high street. Others say it is the Holy Grail of birdwatching. But all are agreed on one thing: the confirmed sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker is the greatest ornithological observation in living memory.

Some liken it to the avian equivalent of seeing Elvis walking down the high street. Others say it is the Holy Grail of birdwatching. But all are agreed on one thing: the confirmed sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker is the greatest ornithological observation in living memory.

The last time anyone had set eyes on this large, black-and-white bird was back in 1944. For more than 60 years scientists had thought that the majestic ivory-billed woodpecker of North America had gone extinct. It had disappeared, they thought, with the huge areas of southern forests that had been systematically logged for two centuries.

But for the past year a select coterie of ornithologists kept secret the fact that they had a video recording of a lone male. And yesterday they revealed that an exhaustive scientific analysis has confirmed the bird in the video was indeed an ivory-billed woodpecker, a species formally known as Campephilus principalis.

"We were excited to find out that we had it on tape and looked at it many times before we concluded that ... it was the woodpecker and undeniably so," said Professor David Lunneau of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Reported sightings of the woodpecker had drawn Professor Lunneau to the huge wilderness area of eastern Arkansas known as the Big Woods. He had kept his camcorder running while he paddled his canoe through the swampy forests. He knew that the bird was notoriously wily and would offer itself to view for no more than a few seconds before it would disappear behind trees - which was too short a time to risk having the camcorder off.

On 25 April last year, his patience was rewarded with an invaluable four seconds of footage showing the bird perched on the trunk of a tupelo tree before it quickly flew away. The camcorder recorded 11 wing beats - just 1.2 seconds of flight - and with it captured the distinctive, white wing markings of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Professor John Fitzpatrick, an ornithologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who led the investigation, said that there was no doubt the bird in the video recording was the genuine article. An extensive analysis, to be published in the journal Science, shows it is the right size and has the correct bands of white feathers on the trailing edges of both wings, Professor Fitzpatrick said.

"This is not any old bird. This is a really special creature. This is America's largest woodpecker, the third-largest in the world - it's spectacularly beautiful," he said. "It's legendary, it's mysterious, and it's been a majestic symbol of the old forest of the American South.

"It's powerful and a specialist on very large, dying trees and as a consequence of that it's been rare since the mid-1800s and was thought to be extinct as early as 1920 because we completely annihilated our southern forests during that period."

The ivory-billed woodpecker is an imposing bird. It is nearly two feet long from beak to tail with a wingspan of two and a half feet. Its ivory bill is about three inches long and its feathers are a stunning jet black and brilliant white - with a delicate red crest on the head of males.

So dramatic is the ivory-billed woodpecker in flight that it is sometimes called the Lord God Bird because stories are told that when naturalists first set eyes on it, they were often heard exclaiming: "Lord God!"

The previous authenticated sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker was in a remote, extensive piece of thick forest near Madison Parish in Louisiana known as the Singer Tract - it was owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company. A wildlife artist called Don Eckelberry was the last person to see one alive - a female living in section 61 of John's Bayou just before it was logged in 1944.

Since then there have been sporadic reports of sightings - particularly of a sub-species in Cuba - but nothing confirmed and everyone thought it had become one of the six North American birds suspected, or known, to have gone extinct since 1880.

"Its disappearance coincided with the systematic annihilation of virgin tall forests across the south-eastern United States between 1880 and the 1940s," scientists said.

Then, at about 1.30pm on 11 February 2004, an amateur birdwatcher, Gene Sparling III of Hot Springs, Arkansas, saw something dramatic as he was kayaking alone on a bayou (tributary) in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Monroe County. He spotted an unusuallarge, red-crested woodpecker flying towards him which landed near the base of a tree about 20 metres away. He immediately suspected from field markings that he had seen an ivory-billed woodpecker.

He posted his observations on an obscure bird website which a week later attracted the attention of Tim Gallagher, the editor of Cornell's magazine, Living Bird, and Bobby Harrison, an ornithologist at Oakwood College, Huntsville, Alabama.

On 27 February 2004, after interviewing Mr Sparling and convinced he had really seen an ivory-bill, the two scientists set off down the same bayou. To their utter amazement a large, black-and-white woodpecker flew in front of their boat just 70 feet away.

They decided to make field sketches and notes independently of one another to see if they had both seen the same thing. Then they compared sketches. "When we finished our notes, 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'," Dr Gallagher said.

"Just to think this bird made it into the 21st century gives me chills. It's like a funeral shroud has been pulled back, giving us a glimpse of a living bird, rising Lazarus-like from the grave."

But as convinced as the two ornithologists were, they knew the wider world would need much harder evidence than hastily drawn field notes. One of the problems with previous reports was that another black-and-white bird species, the pileated woodpecker, lives in the same area and can easily be confused with an ivory-bill.

Professor Lunneau decided that capturing the bird on camera was the only way of providing the definitive proof. Although his video recording - described, not altogether unfairly, as "crummy" by Professor Fitzpatrick - lacks professional clarity, it nevertheless enabled scientists to confirm the sighting based on five distinctive diagnostic features of the species.

The scientists even went back to the same location to place a dummy ivory-billed woodpecker on the same tree to make sure the one in the film was the correct size. Above all, however, it was the distinctive white feathers on the trailing edges of the bird's wing that convinced the specialists that they had truly captured their quarry.

"Throughout the 20th century, it has been every birder's fantasy but it seemed impossibly remote to catch a glimpse of this bird. So this is really the Holy Grail for birds," Professor Fitzpatrick said. "Mysteries remain. We don't know how many birds there are out there. But the important point is that the lifespan of large woodpeckers rarely exceeds 15 years.

"So this bird clearly had a mommy and a daddy that successfully bred sometime in the 1990s or this century. That means there was breeding activity long after everyone thought this bird was gone."

In a world where species extinction and habitat destruction have gone hand in glove, the re-discovery of a once-lost icon of ancient wilderness offers new hope for the natural world.

Conservationists believe that the worst may even be over for the ivory-billed woodpecker because recent attempts to reforest this part of the American continent have improved its habitat, in particular increasing the number of old, naturally decaying trees on which the bird depends for food and nesting sites. During the next 10 years, some 200,000 acres of forest in the Big Woods of Arkansas are expected to be restored to their former pristine glory.

Although only one bird has been sighted at any one time, and it may be the same male, scientists believe there may be a sparse colony of breeding pairs in the region. During 7,000 hours of search time, there have been 15 sightings and on three occasions ornithologists have heard the distinctive double raps of the birds as they drum out their display calls to one another.

"This is remarkable and absolutely wonderful. Extinction is for ever, but here - miraculously - is a second chance," said Professor Tim Birkhead, a leading ornithologist at Sheffield University, adding: "Conservationists and government have got to deal properly with this amazing opportunity. They have to ensure that the habitat and the woodpecker is protected, and to do that, they also have let people see it. This is the best bit of news from the natural world I've had for a long time."

So far, the search for the Lord God Bird has covered only 16 of the 850 square miles of the forests of Arkansas. Scientists hope that in years to come, they will be able to report sightings of breeding pairs over a wide area - and only then will they be able to sleep secure in the knowledge that the species is truly capable of making a comeback.

For Professor Fitzpatrick, the return of the Lord God Bird is nothing short of a miracle. "All of the lure of the wild and the lure of the hunt and the lure of the beauty of birds, and lure of the mysterious and possibly gone, is enveloped in the idea that this bird is there," he said.

Alistair Gammell, international director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said the confirmed sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker would be celebrated by bird lovers around the world.

"This bird's rediscovery is not quite like finding a dodo, but it comes very, very close. Thrillingly, we now have a chance to save this magnificent species. The world must seize this unique opportunity," he added.

Frank Gill, a senior ornithologist at the Audubon Society in America, put it even more succinctly: "This is huge. Just huge. It is kind of like finding Elvis."