Glimpses of a Legendary Woodpecker

Long feared extinct, the ivory-billed woodpecker has been spotted in Arkansas.

An amazing sighting has thrilled birdwatchers, scientists, and environmentalists around the world: The ivory-billed woodpecker is alive.

An ivory-billed woodpecker in a 1930s photograph, with color added, shows the distinctive white on its back and lower wings.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Long feared extinct, the legendary bird has recently been spotted by several people in the cypress and tupelo swamps of eastern Arkansas. A video confirmed the sightings. It’s an extraordinary find because no one ever thought we’d see a living ivory-billed woodpecker again.

“In the world of birding, nothing could be more longed for than to rediscover this bird,” said John Fitzpatrick, director of Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology.

The birds used to live throughout the ancient forests of the southeastern United States and Cuba. And they were magnificent. Measuring some 20 inches (almost 2 feet!) from the top of their heads to the tip of their tails, they ranked as the third largest woodpeckers in the world.

However, as logging destroyed the trees in which they lived, ivory-billed woodpeckers began to disappear. The last definite sighting was in 1944.

Then, in February 2004, a man named Gene Sparling was kayaking in the bayous of Arkansas’s Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, when he saw what he thought was a large, red-crested woodpecker. He posted a report about his sighting on the Internet.

Two men who had long been searching for the ivory-billed woodpecker saw Sparling’s report and were curious enough to join him on a tour of the refuge. At one point, a big bird with bold white patches under its wings flapped toward them.

“We almost fell out of the canoe,” says Tim Gallagher, editor of Cornell’s Living Bird magazine.

A video recorded later by a researcher in a canoe provided confirmation that the bird was truly an ivory-billed woodpecker.

Worried about the bird’s safety, scientists looking for the bird managed to keep their sightings secret for a whole year until they could be sure of what they had found. In public during that time, they called the bird “ibwo” (a word made from the initial letters of “ivory-billed woodpecker”) or “Elvis.”

Now that the word is out, researchers are looking for more ivory-billed woodpeckers in the region. They’re also raising money to help save this rare treasure of a bird.—E. Sohn

Going Deeper:

Milius, Susan. 2005. Alive and knocking: Glimpses of an ivory-billed legend. Science News 167(May 7):291. Available at .

Additional information about the ivory-billed woodpecker can be found at (Cornell University).

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