Extinct, or not?

Aah, the ivory-billed woodpecker (“New study offers hope”, January 29, page 2). What a saga it’s been! For decades, most serious bird people in the USA thought this species was extinct, on the not unreasonable grounds that if such a huge, noisy, easily identified bird was still around, then somebody would probably manage to find one or two. Not a chance - there were rumours every now and then, but no unanimously credited sightings since 1944.

There was a renewed spate of rumoured sightings in the early Noughties - and then, bingo! New York’s prestigious Cornell University sensationally announced the rediscovery of the ivory-bill in April 2005. Sixty years off the radar, and then suddenly it was back on the map.

The key evidence for the rediscovery was a short video clip filmed in April 2004 in Arkansas. This was widely distributed on the web (though you’d do well to find a copy now) and, before long, expert bird-watchers started to voice scepticism. At first sight, the blurry, distant bird in the video clip looked like an ivory-billed woodpecker. However, frame-by-frame analysis (in excruciating detail) appeared to cast doubt on its identity, and before long, most bird-watchers agreed that the video showed the common pileated woodpecker.

Since then, it’s all been very interesting for ivory-bill fans. Officially backed searches for the woodpecker continue, and much has been published about it (including the Warnell study we referred to in our news story.) A small number of enthusiasts still publicly declare their belief that the ivory-bill is, or may be, or could be “out there”. And a large body of sceptics maintain a stance of “we won’t get fooled again”.

For the “official” story of the alleged rediscovery, and how the US academic community is dealing with it, check out the incredibly well-put-together pages on the Cornell University website.

And for a frankly frivolous take on the issue (published before the recent rediscovery claims), try this.