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More Proof Of Woodpecker Revealed In Audio Recordings

August 15, 2005
Cornell University
Cornell researchers will formally present new audio evidence of ivory-billed woodpeckers Aug. 24 at the 123rd American Ornithologists Union meeting in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker from Audubon Plate 66.
Credit: Image courtesy of Yale University

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Cornell University researchers will presentnew audio evidence supporting the existence of the phantomlikeivory-billed woodpecker Aug. 24 and 25 at the 123rd AmericanOrnithologists' Union meeting in Santa Barbara, Calif.

CornellLab of Ornithology researcher Russ Charif will begin presenting the newaudio evidence at 10:30 a.m. PST Aug. 24 in Lotte Lehmann Hall at theUniversity of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB). Lab members RonRohrbaugh and Ken Rosenberg and Director John Fitzpatrick will alsomake presentations.

One recording suggests the presence of atleast two birds: a signature double rap that sounds like anivory-billed woodpecker drumming on a tree from a distance followed bya closer double rap. This drumming behavior is typical of many largewoodpeckers closely related with the ivory-bill. Other recordingsinclude sounds that resemble the ivory-billed woodpecker'sdistinctively nasal "kent" calls. The sounds were discovered by Cornellaudio experts combing through 17,000 hours of audio files fromautonomous recording units installed in the Arkansas woods andswamplands.

The ivory-billed woodpecker was thought extinct forsome 60 years until bird experts, including Tim Gallagher, an editorand birder from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, claimed to have spottedit in Arkansas' Big Woods in February 2004.

In April 2005, theonline version of Science magazine published a study led byFitzpatrick, in a partnership involving the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,The Nature Conservancy and other researchers. As direct evidence, thepaper contained a Web link to a brief, blurry but carefully analyzedvideo clip of the woodpecker. Since then, several researchers,including ornithologists Richard Prum of Yale University, Mark Robbinsof the University of Kansas and Jerome Jackson, a zoologist fromFlorida Gulf Coast University -- publicly declared the evidenceunconvincing and disputed it in an article submitted to the PublicLibrary of Science (PLoS).

Other experts also stepped forward to say that the Science paper failed to provide definitive proof of the elusive woodpecker.

Inresponse to this ongoing scientific debate, Fitzpatrick and colleaguessubmitted their comments to PloS. They also provided sound recordingsfrom Arkansas as further proof of the bird's survival.

The audiofiles proved so convincing that Prum, Robbins and Jackson reported thatthey now believe that the woodpecker exists. They immediately withdrewtheir paper from PLoS.

"The thrilling new sound recordingsprovide clear and convincing evidence that the ivory-billed woodpeckeris not extinct," Prum said in a statement issued by Yale Aug. 2.

"Wehave a lot of mysteries still to solve about this bird," saidFitzpatrick. "But we do stand by our evidence that at least one wasalive in 2004 and early 2005."

Fitzpatrick added that theresearch team knew of a few of the recordings when they released videoevidence of the ivory-billed woodpecker in April 2005, but they had notconducted detailed acoustic analyses.

That the bird stillsurvives despite so many years without a verifiable sighting hasprompted many people to work toward ensuring the woodpecker's continuedexistence. Since the April 28 announcement of the bird's rediscovery inWashington, D.C., the U.S. Departments of the Interior and ofAgriculture have announced a multiyear, multimillion-dollar partnershipto protect the bird's habitat. This includes more than $10 million infederal funds to protect the bird on top of an equal amount alreadypromised by private groups and individuals. The federal money is taggedfor such activities as research, monitoring, public education,conservation easements, reforestation and law enforcement.

Thegovernment also has protected 320,000 acres of public land in the CacheRiver area in Arkansas where the bird was spotted. The NatureConservancy is leading an effort to expand that land to 600,000 acres,an area half the size of Delaware.

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