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Excerpts from the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Press Conference

Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., April 28, 2005

John Pitzpatrick at the IBW press conference
John Fitzpatrick announced news of the rediscovery at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Photo by David O. Brown/CLO

John Fitzpatrick, director, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

It's thrilling beyond words to stand here with two cabinet members at my side, as a proud American, humbly privileged to announce that after 60 years of fading hopes that we would ever see this spectacular bird again, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker has been rediscovered. It lives in the Big Woods region of eastern Arkansas, and perhaps other places around the Southeast as well.

Before going into some of the details of the actual discovery, I want to remind you that this is no ordinary bird. To the 70 million Americans who are bird watchers today, and, in fact, to anybody who's ever seriously browsed a bird book, this is really the most spectacular creature we could imagine rediscovering.

It is beautiful beyond description, it is America's largest woodpecker, the third largest in the world. It was one of John James Audubon's favorite birds. One of his most beautiful paintings is the "Ivory-Billed Woodpecker." He called it the "Van Dyke" bird [after renowned Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyck] because of its extraordinary color, its remarkable patterns of black and white, and the striking red of the male.

It's a magical bird. It's been mysterious for a century and a half, increasingly rare through the 1800s, until by 1920 it was thought to be extinct, then rediscovered briefly in the '20s before a zealous hunter took those out. It was called the "Lord God bird" by people like Teddy Roosevelt because people would drop to their knees and exclaim, "Lord God, what a bird!"

For three generations this bird has been our symbol of the great old forests of America, the great southern forests. It is a powerful specialist on large dead trees, chipping the bark to get at those big grubs first...It's every birder's fantasy to see one of these birds.

It's also, I'm sorry to say, the flagship in America of extinction, the flagship of our collapsed ecosystems. It's a flagship of the blunders of excess in overharvesting. In the world of birding, nothing could have been more hoped for than this Holy Grail.

"Just maybe we didn't entirely destroy one of the most enchanting ecosystems of our great American heritage."

For those of us who tenaciously cling to the idea that humans and earth's natural systems can live side-by-side in harmony, the discovery we are announcing today is the most spectacular moment or ray of hope that I could ever have imagined.

The last individuals that were well documented were known from a piece of forest in northeastern Louisiana called the Singer Tract. They were well studied in the late 1930s by a graduate student at Cornell University, and there have been periodic reports since that time from Texas, from Florida, and from South Carolina.

A recent report from Louisiana stirred a lot of press interest and a significant effort to locate it in 2002, always with the same result: no validation, no confirmation, hopes fading...

Then the remarkable series of events that took place beginning February 11, 2004, when that gentleman right there--you've heard of the kayaker...[applause]...Gene Sparling is his name, he's a longtime Arkansan, he's a woodsman, he knew enough to know that this bird that landed not far from him was not a Pileated Woodpecker. This was a bird he'd never seen before. It was, in his words, a pileated on steroids...[laughter]... and it had the telltale markings on the lower back, the spectacular white patch on the lower back.

His mention of this on a web site came to the attention of these two gentlemen, Tim Gallagher from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who edits Living Bird, and Bobby Harrison...[applause] ...from Oakwood College in Alabama. They got to Gene's site a few days later. Gene led them around and they were unspeakably lucky because an Ivory-billed Woodpecker flew right in front of their canoe, and would have landed on their canoe had they not both shouted at it, simultaneously, "Ivory-bill!"

There was then a series of sightings in early April...David Luneau from the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, cleverly crafted a way...[applause]...to keep video rolling and got the piece of data that we analyzed early by which we could declare that this was indeed an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The video shows the large woodpecker, the diagnostic pattern of white in the wing, both wings having trailing white, the white on the back, and it even has a little image of a perched bird sitting on the tree that they wish they had seen before they came around that corner...

The program of research and conservation and agency involvement have gone on for a year. There are many mysteries that remain, tantalizing evidence of other birds, but not yet certain. We've surveyed a total of thousands of person-hours in an area about 5 percent of the Big Woods.

The great thing about birds is that they connect humans with nature. They fly, they're colorful, they sing, they migrate, they're everywhere, big and small. The great thing about this discovery is that it fills us with hope.

Just maybe we didn't entirely destroy one of the most enchanting ecosystems of our great American heritage. And if we do our job right, it's going to go on long into the future, and it'll only get better and better for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

"Second chances to save wildlife thought to be extinct are extremely rare. We will take advantage of this opportunity to recover this species....Today we are committing to a multi-agency, multi-million-dollar, multi-year program to provide hope for this bird?s continued survival."

--Secretary Gale Norton, Department of the Interior


cover of Science magazine
Science cover courtesy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Illustration by George Miksch Sutton

Dr. Katrina Kelner, deputy managing editor, Science

This is a paper that stands above the rest and that we'll all remember for a long time. Not only is this announcement a wonderful story of human perseverence and dedication but it's a skilled example of the scientific method.

After they had a few initial sightings of the bird, the scientists working on this project could have reported it to the press, no doubt to much acclaim, but its authenticity would have been internally debated. So instead they spent over a year's time in a systematic survey of the area around the initial sightings and then used video and audio recordings to authenticate the sightings...

At Science we publish too many necessary but discouraging reports of ecological decline and environmental damage on the planet earth. So it's a welcome, refreshing change to be able to publish a success story such as the rediscovery of this wonderful woodpecker. I hope this means we're doing something right in managing our country and that we can learn from this success about how to preserve the natural wealth of our planet.

Senator Blanche at press conference
Senator Blanche Lincoln shared memories of the Big Woods and spoke about conservation partnerships in Arkansas.

Photo by David O. Brown/CLO

Senator Blanche Lincoln
U.S. Senator, Arkansas

Having grown up in the Big Woods, some of my fondest memories are--four o'clock in the morning, getting in a boat with my dad who knew every inch of the forest and the water before the sun even came up. He knew where those cypress knees were--he'd say, "Move the boat to the left. Move the boat to the right!" He knew exactly where everything was because it was so near and dear to him.

Having been raised in a 7th-generation Arkansas farm family, knowing what those woods mean to the people of Arkansas, makes this day even that much more special. My dad knew that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was out there. He knew as he took me through those woods. And he would point out the Pileated Woodpecker. We'd look and see all of the different birds out there.

He always talked about the idea that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker would be there, and he knew. He knew. So I know he's looking down on me today and he's saying, "Isn't this a great day for Arkansas, isn't this a great day for our nation, and isn't this a great day for nature?"...

We've got an incredible opportunity to give back to our children, who I hope will one day paddle through those woods with me, just like I did with my father, and be able to say, "Gosh my mom really did love nature and she really was willing to take good care of it."

 

For permission to reprint all or part of this article, please contact Laura Erickson, editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY, 14850. Phone: (607) 254-1114. email: lle24@cornell.edu

 
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