The Year in Science: Ornithology

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Declares Itself Unextinct

True believers have long refused to accept that the ivory-billed woodpecker, once common in the United States, is extinct. This year that faith was rewarded. After more than 60 years out of the public eye, the majestic bird was definitively sighted once again.

These birds are hard to miss: Big, vocal, and red headed, they are the largest of American woodpeckers. Denizens of bottomlands and old forests from the Carolinas to east Texas, the birds dwindled in number as their habitat was logged from the late 1800s through the 1930s. The last official appearance, in the 1940s, was followed by several decades of anecdotal sightings. Among those who refused to believe the end had come was Tim Gallagher of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and editor of Living Bird magazine.

Gallagher's luck turned one day when he came across a Web site with an entry by veteran woodsman Gene Sparling. On February 11, 2004, Sparling was kayaking in Arkansas through a cypress swamp in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge when he was startled by a large black, white, and red woodpecker. He knew ornithology well enough to see that it was larger than a common—and similarly colored—pileated woodpecker and that it had the markings of an ivorybill. He noted his sighting online. When Gallagher read it, he called a friend and fellow birder, Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College, and the two traveled through the same Cache River area with Sparling.

So it happened that on February 27, 2004, Gallagher and Harrison became the next people to witness a living, breathing ivory-billed woodpecker. "It flew right across in front of us," Gallagher says. "We got a good look at it and both screamed 'Ivorybill!' and jumped right out of the canoe. I was just in shock, and Bobby broke down and cried. He'd been looking for ivorybills for 33 years. Gene was ahead of us in his kayak and came back. By then we were all muddy and looked so shocked that he must have thought we'd been attacked by a bear."

It was the first time since 1944 that two qualified observers had seen a living ivorybill at the same time. For another full year, teams of expert birders combed the area for conclusive evidence, using handheld video cameras as well as stationary recording devices, in both the Cache River and the White River National Wildlife refuges in Arkansas.

The full evidence was published last spring in the journal Science, coauthored by Gallagher and two dozen scientists from Cornell and other institutions. An audiovisual presentation by John Fitzpatrick, head of the Cornell Laboratory, was received by an ecstatic crowd at the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union in Santa Barbara, California.

A multimillion-dollar search and conservation effort, spearheaded by the Cornell Lab, the Nature Conservancy, and several government agencies, is under way in Arkansas and elsewhere. The hope is to find a mating pair. —Michael W. Robbins 

'Bird Brain' No Longer Means 'Stupid'

Some pigeons can distinguish between the paintings of Monet and those of Picasso. New Caledonian crows can learn how to fabricate tools for retrieving food. Scrub jays are demonstrably able to imagine other birds stealing their food and to plan accordingly. In short, the epithet "bird brain" has taken on new meaning in recent years. In February, a group of neuroscientists who call themselves the Avian Bird Nomenclature Consortium publicized a whole new scientific lexicon to account for the growing body of evidence that birds are a lot smarter than some thought.

"We've known for 50 to 60 years that many structures in birds' brains were misnamed, and it was causing a lot of confusion," says Georg Striedter of the University of California at Irvine. "Some of the same terms, like neostriatum, actually referred to different structures in bird brains and in mammal brains. So we hashed out a new nomenclature—it was an interesting exercise in science by committee." The consortium's study summarizes both the rationale for this change in nomenclature and the molecular, behavioral, and genetic findings that made it necessary. Now the challenge is to get other bird-brain researchers to use the new vocabulary.  "Neuroscientists," says Striedter, "would generally rather use someone else's toothbrush than use someone else's nomenclature." —Michael W. Robbins

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