Saturday, May 27, 2006

Setback in Rediscovery of Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

by Brian Lipson (Class of '06)

Last year, the hype began when Cornell researchers claimed to have found evidence of the thought to be extinct ivory-billed woodpecker. The main piece of evidence was video footage that captured a grainy, out of focus clip of a woodpecker with very hard to distinguish features. The footage has caused much debate and skepticism. Research teams have taken both sides, some saying that it is conclusive evidence of an ivory-billed and some saying it is just the similar looking pileated woodpecker that is common to the area where the footage was taken. Notable publications include the Cornell team’s original article about their findings in the journal Science and famous birder David Sibley’s refuting of their claim in the same journal several months later. Further evidence includes sound tapes of supposed ivory-billed calls and pecking noises. Those too have been debated widely, also never really being established as solid proof.

While the discussion goes on, research teams have continued to search the Big Woods area of Arkansas where the bird controversy originally started. Many methods using high-tech equipment are being used to try to capture some kind of evidence to prove the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Infrared cameras and sound recorders are hidden all over the forests in eastern Arkansas to try to collect as much data as possible.

Recently, the Cornell team spent two seasons trying to confirm a sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker. In this second year of searching for the bird, the team did not find any new evidence of the woodpecker, a slight setback that is disappointing for the team. But they aren’t giving up, and as Ron Rohrbaugh, the leader of the Cornell team’s most recent search, puts it, “Just because we've put two field seasons in doesn't necessarily mean that the bird is not there or that we should have found it by now.”

To this point, the public has been almost completely denied access to the area around where scientists think there is a chance there might be an ivory-billed woodpecker. However, after this most recent search, the public is expected to be able to return. In fact, despite the concern that the public’s return would push out any ivory-billed woodpecker that might still be there, the Cornell team is thinking of having next year’s search consist of volunteers.

One last issue that bothers scientists the most is the funding behind conservation efforts for the woodpecker. The best evidence for the existence of the bird is a fuzzy, low quality video, and yet there has been five million dollars in aid for the conservation of the bird. However, the funding was not an increase in conservation money, it was money taken away from other conservation projects elsewhere in the country. The most frustrating part for the scientists whose projects have lost funding in favor of the woodpecker is that they have their near extinct animals in captivity or unmistakable evidence of their existence.

References: (as of may 26th)

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