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Blane Klemek column: Hope for comeback of ivory-billed woodpecker

In April 2005, a group of wildlife scientists, as told by several news sources, reported observing several "firm" sightings of at least one ivory-billed woodpecker in central Arkansas.

The story created a lot of excitement, especially for people holding out hope the species was not extinct after all.

The "rediscovery" of the ivory-billed woodpecker was arguably the biggest story in decades of all things ornithological. And since this time, other observations have occurred, but few have been corroborated.

However, an article that appeared in the March 2011 issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America titled "Putative audio recordings of the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)," appears to authenticate the existence of the long-believed extinct species ("putative" being a key word in the title!).

Michael Collins, a Naval Research Laboratory scientist and birder, published the article based on his video footage and the videos' audio recordings of a bird or birds that he videotaped in Louisiana near Pearl River during five years of field research work that he conducted.

According to the article, Collins recorded 10 observations of the species, including hearing distinctive vocalizations unique only to ivory-billed woodpeckers.

Prior to this, the last authenticated sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker in the United States occurred about 67 years ago (1944) in Louisiana. Later observations were documented in Cuba in 1987 and 1988.

Yet throughout the years since the last sighting of this giant bird, many observations of ivory-billed woodpeckers were reported but were never confirmed.

But that all changed in 2005 with the announcement of the potentially good news, plus Collins' sightings and publication.

Ivory-billed woodpeckers are indeed large birds. Close to two feet long from beak to tail, with a wingspan of three feet, it's no wonder that the woodpecker has often been described as the "Lord God" bird. The unusual name is in reference to a supposed common phrase - "Lord God, What a Bird!" - that has been known to emanate spontaneously from those people lucky enough to have sighted the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Roger Tory Peterson, artist and author of field guidebooks, once wrote that the ivory-billed woodpecker was "a whacking big bird." His description, undoubtedly accurate, also refers to the double-rap call of the bird's "BAM-bam" strike on wood with its bill. Ornithologists transcribe ivory bills vocalizations as, "kent, kent, kent" that is followed by the double-rap.

The massive woodpecker, though similar looking and similarly sized as our own pileated woodpeckers, fly differently. Instead of the swooping, undulating style of flight typical of the pileated and most other woodpeckers, the ivory-billed woodpeckers' flight-line is as straight as an arrow. The forceful wing-beats and stiff wing feathers make the bird an especially loud flyer, too.

The decline of ivory-billed woodpeckers was hastened long ago by wholesale logging of the species preferred habitat of expansive old-growth forests. Although John J. Audubon once reported observing the woodpeckers as far north as the juncture of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, the bird was primarily limited to the southeastern Mississippi Valley states.

Ivory-billed woodpeckers, like pileated woodpeckers, require large territories to breed and survive in. But unlike their slightly smaller cousins, ivory-billed woodpeckers need even bigger country.

Around six square miles of uncut old-growth forest is necessary to attract and sustain a mated pair. To compare, a breeding pair of pileated woodpeckers need about one square mile of territorial space to nest in. Furthermore, pileated woodpeckers are more generalist in habitat preference and do not necessarily prefer, as ivory-billed woodpeckers do, old growth forests.

The food of choice for ivory-billed woodpeckers is beetle larvae. Using their ivory-colored bills to hammer through and pry open tree bark, the woodpeckers seek out the high-protein food sources throughout their territories.

Foraging is increased during the nesting season when both parents spend most of their time feeding and caring for chicks. During this time of the year the birds each make hundreds of trips to and from the nesting cavity, usually about 40 feet or higher above the forest floor, in order to satiate hungry young mouths.

Now, with the apparent discovery of the woodpecker's existence, habitat protection is critical. Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns had promised federal assistance to further protect the species, but I'm not sure if this has occurred or not.

Nonetheless, the promise was to include further protection of the three-kilometer "Big Woods" region of Arkansas and to perhaps increase its size by an additional 200,000 acres. Groups such as the National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and Cornell Lab of Ornithology had organized a partnership to promote this essential cause.

Without question, the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker is hugely exciting. Many people worldwide had long believed the bird was extinct. As such, to learn otherwise is cause for celebration. The discovery has renewed interest in the great woodpecker while opening doors for further protection and hopefully expansion of the Big Woods and other areas.

Wildlife success stories are rare. That the ivory-billed woodpecker has perhaps survived (I remain a skeptic) is certainly a tribute to its hopeful perseverance.

Let us hope that its survival is factual as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager. He can be reached at