February 15, 2014

Science Searches for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

by Christine Hoekenga

Ivory-billed woodpecker

Hand-colored black and white photograph of an ivory-billed woodpecker taken by Jerry A. Payne in 1935.

Ten years ago this week, the flap of feathered wings in a swampy woodland ignited scientific controversy and public fervor. On February 11, 2004, in an area known as the Big Woods of Arkansas, outdoorsman Gene Sparling caught a glimpse of a large red, white and black bird, which he believed to be an ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). Seeing the bird was somewhat like seeing a ghost: with the exception of some unconfirmed sightings scattered over the southeastern U.S., the bird had not been seen for decades and many believed it was extinct.

Sparling’s sighting quickly caught the attention of university researchers and avid birders Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison, who immediately traveled to Arkansas. Sparling took the two men, one from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York and the other from Oakwood College in Alabama, out kayaking to the place he’d spotted the bird. They were lucky enough to see the bird in question a second time and agreed with Sparling’s assessment: the ivory-billed woodpecker was alive and well in the woods or Arkansas.

The confirmation by Gallagher and Harrison launched a full-fledged scientific expedition to find and document the bird. For six months, 22 full-time researchers and teams of trained volunteers fanned out over a 550,000-acre area looking for ivory-bills or their nesting sites. In addition to their observations, they gathered thousands of hours of audio and video recordings to be analyzed in the lab. Researchers reported hearing what sounded like the ivory-bill’s distinctive call and “double-rap” drumming, as well as a number of potential, but unconfirmed, sightings.

On April 25, 2004, David Luneau from the University of Arkansas, captured what turned out to be the most compelling evidence of the expedition–a brief video clip of a bird in flight.

As with any data gathered in the field, researchers analyzed the video clip carefully. They studied it frame-by-frame to determine whether Luneau had captured footage of an ivory-billed woodpecker or its smaller, more common relative, the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). After analyzing the bird’s size, coloration and flight pattern, the researchers concluded that it was indeed a male ivory-billed woodpecker. They published their findings in the journal Science in April of 2005, declaring, “The ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), long suspected to be extinct, has been rediscovered in the Big Woods region of eastern Arkansas.”

Other researchers who analyzed the footage independently were less convinced. The scientific community continued to discuss and debate the video and other evidence gathered in the field, with some skeptics never being fully convinced and all parties agreeing that further research and better documentation were needed.

Today, a decade later, we still do not have definitive evidence that a population of ivory-billed woodpeckers continues to inhabit the southeastern U.S.  But, the information gathered on various expeditions to woodpecker habitat since the 2004 sighting has been useful to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in preparing a recovery plan for the bird that is “ready to implement wherever and whenever it is needed.”

Read the researchers’ original paper in Science presenting the evidence that ivory-billed woodpeckers continue to live in Arkansas and the counter-argument that Luneau’s video clip was inconclusive. Use our module Understanding Scientific Journals and Articles and our reading guide The Case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker as aides.

Find out more about the different forms of data used by scientists and how those data are analyzed and interpreted in our modules Using Graphs and Visual Data in Science and Data Analysis and Interpretation.

Learn about another species that has recently re-emerged after having been thought to be extinct in our module Tracking Jaguars with Sergio Avila.

Christine Hoekenga

Written by

Christine is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, specializing in science and nature. She holds an Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science and Media Studies and a Master's of Science Writing. She has been working in science communication and education for nearly a decade as a journalist, an organizer for conservation groups, and a museum educator. Before joining the Visionlearning team, she served as the New Media and Online Community Manager for the Webby award-winning Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Christine is assisting Visionlearning with developing new modules and glossary terms, managing the blog, and outreach through social media.