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Long thought extinct, a species of woodpecker sails back into view

The ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to have been pushed into extinction by massive logging of the American Southeast, has been confirmed spotted for the first time in 60 years soaring through the wild swamplands of southern Arkansas.

The disappearance of the bird, one of the world's largest woodpeckers, has long been held up as a symbol of the loss of the American wilderness. Its reappearance was hailed yesterday as a validation of efforts to preserve and restore forested areas throughout the country.

''This is huge," said Frank Gill, a former president of the Audubon Society. ''It's kind of like finding Elvis."

Reports of sightings have appeared sporadically since the last confirmed appearance of the bird in 1944, but researchers generally have dismissed the reports as the overenthusiastic imaginings of amateurs. It was one of six North American bird species believed to have become extinct since 1880.

The new conclusion that the species has survived is based on at least eight separate sightings in the last year -- many of them by experienced ornithologists -- and video footage shot by David Luneau of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

''The bird captured on video is clearly an ivory-billed woodpecker," said ornithologist John Weaver Fitzpatrick of Cornell University, who reported the finding with his colleagues yesterday in the online version of the journal Science. The scientists magnified and analyzed individual frames of the video to confirm the woodpecker's identity.

The bird is easy to identify. It has a 3-foot wingspan, is 19 to 21 inches long, and has distinctive black-and-white markings. It is second in size only to the imperial woodpecker of Mexico.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton called the find an ''exciting opportunity."

''Second chances to save wildlife once thought to be extinct are rare," she said at a news conference, where she announced $10 million in funding to bolster restoration of the Big Woods of southern Arkansas, where the bird was spotted.

The most crucial part of the area for the woodpecker is on federal land that's well preserved, said Scott Simon, Arkansas director of the Nature Conservancy, which along with other private conservation groups plans to spend another $10 million to protect the habitat.

Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson called the ivory-billed woodpecker ''the signature bird" of the southern coastal plain.

Males have a red crest, while females have a black head and crest. White wing patches and a stripe down the side of the head and continuing down its back distinguish the ivory-billed bird from the pileated woodpecker, which is nearly as large and much more abundant. The birds also have a large, light-colored, chisel-tipped bill; the pileated woodpecker has a much darker bill.

Dead trees provide nesting sites and food. The birds remove bark by pecking at it with their characteristic double-tap drumming -- which researchers have heard frequently in the Big Woods area. Females lay a clutch of three to four eggs, for which the males assume sole responsibility at night.

A nesting pair require about 3 square miles of forest for sustenance, so that even when the birds were widespread, their populations were never dense.

The creature is sometimes called the ''Lord God bird," Fitzpatrick said. ''It's such a striking bird that, when people would see it, they would say, 'Lord God, what a woodpecker!' "

The current surge of interest began on Feb. 11, 2004, when amateur ornithologist Gene M. Sparling III of Hot Springs, Ark., saw what he thought was an ivory-billed woodpecker while kayaking in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge and reported it to a bird watchers' website. ''It was a spiritual experience," he said yesterday.

A week later, Tim W. Gallagher of Cornell and Bobby R. Harrison of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., interviewed Sparling and were so impressed by his account that they accompanied him on a second trip. On Feb. 27, 2004, a large black-and-white woodpecker flew less than 70 feet in front of their canoe on the bayou, startling them. Both simultaneously cried out, ''Ivory-bill!" -- scaring off the bird.

Researchers then organized several expeditions, spending a total of more than 7,000 hours seeking sightings. They had six, all of which were too fleeting for photography. Ultimately, Luneau reasoned that their best bet was to leave a video camera running constantly and he captured four seconds of footage showing the bird taking off from the trunk of a tupelo tree.

Scientists do not know how many ivory-billed woodpeckers there are in the region or whether they have actually seen many or just one male. Because the lifespan is only about 16 years, Fitzpatrick speculated that there is at least one breeding pair.

Researchers said that the Big Woods area has been in the process of restoration for several years and is now about 40 percent along the way toward maturity. Restoration has probably provided food and nesting sites for what might have been a very small group of the birds, allowing their numbers to expand to a point where they began to come in contact with humans.

Federal and state officials warned people not to flock to find the ivory-billed woodpecker. ''Don't love this bird to death," Norton said.

Knight Ridder Newspapers contributed to this report.

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