The Story Behind the Video

Summer 2005

The views of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker were fleeting, leaving little opportunity to ready a camera for photographs. However, by using a continuously-recording video camera mounted in a canoe, David Luneau, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, captured four seconds of video footage on April 25, 2004. The camera recorded blurry footage showing a large woodpecker taking off from the trunk of a tree.

Analyzing the video

Marc Dantzker a 30-something videographer with a shaved head and a goatee, always seems to be nursing a serious cup of coffee in his office in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library. Marc's the guy everyone turns to when they need to solve a complicated video problem, so it made sense when the Luneau video landed on his desk in May 2004.

Dantzker looked at the video and knew he could sharpen the image up through the process of de-interlacing. "Video consists of a number of alternating horizontal lines that mesh together," said Dantzker as he illustrated by holding his two hands - fingers splayed - in front of him and then brought his hands together, interlacing the fingers. The result is a full image with a serrated edge. That's why stills from videos can look fuzzy around the edges. During the de-interlacing process the lines in each frame are separated creating twice as many frames. The result is sharper, cleaner edges, which is critical in looking at footage like the Luneau video where so much depends on where the white and black begin and end on the bird.

Dantzker is quick to point out that he did nothing to alter the video by de-interlacing it -- nothing has been artificially enhanced, added, or taken away.

"Robert Henderson, my brother-in-law, and I were checking remote cameras on April 25, 2004," said David Luneau. "Interestingly, I had placed two cameras in the area where the video was taken."

"As usual, I had the camcorder propped in front of me, pointed straight ahead and zoomed fully out. We were nearing the end of a long day (3:24 P.M.) and were about to check the two cameras. As we came around the bend in the channel, I cut the motor off, raised it to its locked position, and reached for my paddle. When I looked up I saw the tail end of a black and white bird flying away."

"It was obvious to me (for reasons I'm not sure I can explain) that it was a woodpecker. All I was interested in at the time was seeing whether the white on the wings was leading or trailing. It was very frustrating because the bird was flying directly away, and I couldn't get a side view of the wing pattern. That's when one of us realized that maybe it was on the tape. I replaced the tape in the camera with another one and said, 'At least we have something to look at when we get home.'"

The tape did show a woodpecker, but the image was blurry and difficult to discern.

Luneau said, "I was not completely convinced that this woodpecker was an ivory-bill until March 17, 2005, when John Fitzpatrick, Martjan Lammertink, Tim Gallagher, Ron Rohrbaugh, and I together made measurements of the bird [recorded on video] as it began to fly from the side of the tree. It became clear to me at that time that we had proof that the bird was too big for a pileated."

Marc Dantzker, video curator at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library, took the video and through a process known as de-interlacing, managed to sharpen the images. Frame-by-frame analysis shows a bird perched on a tupelo trunk, with a distinctive white pattern on its back. During 1.2 seconds of flight, the video revealed 11 wingbeats showing extensive white on the trailing edges of the wings and white on the back. Both of these features distinguish the ivory-billed woodpecker from the superficially similar, and much more common, Pileated Woodpecker.