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Video presented as evidence ivory-billed woodpecker still exists

Wildlife authorities examining video by Bill Bowden | August 3, 2022 at 7:11 a.m.
An ivory-billed woodpecker specimen is on a display at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. Death's come knocking a last time for the splendid ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 assorted birds, fish and other species: The U.S. government is declaring them extinct. It's a rare move for wildlife officials to give up hope on a plant or animal, but government scientists say they've exhausted efforts to find these 23. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

In the world of ivory-billed woodpecker sightings, 9.8 seconds is an eternity.

An Alabama man says he has a video of that length showing an ivory-billed woodpecker flying over a southern swamp.

Bobby Harrison has presented the video to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to keep it from declaring the rare bird extinct.

Harrison won't say where he shot the Oct. 17, 2020, video, but he said he's seen ivory-billed woodpeckers nine times, and eight of those sightings were at Bayou DeView in the Big Woods of east Arkansas.

Bayou DeView has been ground zero for 21st-century ivory-billed woodpecker activity after a flurry of sightings in 2004-05 set ornithologists aflutter.

The ivory-billed was once -- and perhaps still is -- America's largest woodpecker. With its prominent beak and a wingspan of 30 inches, it was known as the "Lord God Bird" because people would exclaim "Lord God!" when it swooped down from the sky.

Harrison showed the video Monday night via Zoom to a group of about 80 people attending an online meeting of Mission Ivorybill, which "seeks to help save the ivory-billed woodpecker" in part by opposing the federal government's effort to declare it extinct.

Matt Courtman of Monroe, La., co-creator of Mission Ivorybill, said it brought a tear to his eye when he saw the bird fly by in Harrison's video.

"When I saw the bird fly in, I knew immediately it was an ivory-bill," Courtman said. "The flight pattern was unique in those woods. The thing about Bobby's video is it is literally a documented sighting."

He means that Harrison, an expert on the ivory-billed woodpecker, had already seen and identified the bird before capturing it on video.

People with less expertise often mistake pileated woodpeckers for ivory-billed woodpeckers.

Harrison told the Mission Ivorybill group that he's not presenting the video as "proof" the ivory-billed woodpecker exists, but as "evidence" that it does. He said others also have reported sightings.

"Personally, I think there's enough evidence that it needs to come off the delist for now," Harrison said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "There's enough sightings and enough evidence to support these sightings."

Evidence is what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been looking for.

On Sept. 30, 2021, the Wildlife Service proposed removing the ivory-billed woodpecker, along with 22 other species, from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife due to extinction.

A two-month public comment period was held late last year regarding all 23 species.

Then, a public hearing on the ivory-billed woodpecker was held Jan. 26, followed by a one-month extension of the public comment period for that species.

On July 7, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reopened the comment period for another month and extended its final decision by six months.

"Since the publication of the proposed rule to delist the ivory-billed woodpecker, there has been substantial disagreement regarding the interpretation of the evidence that exists for the ivory-billed woodpecker," according to a rule the Wildlife Service published July 7 in the Federal Register. "This situation has led to a significant disagreement regarding whether the species is extinct."

The Sept. 30 proposal was based on the best science available at the time, according to a news release from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Wildlife Service is looking, in particular, for clear video or photographic evidence of the camera-shy woodpecker -- photographic evidence that can be "repeatedly interpreted the same way by independent observers, such as definitive photographic evidence collected by a field observer," according to the published rule.

"The wording is very problematic and that will probably wind up in court the way they've got it written," David Luneau Jr. of North Little Rock said during a recent Capitol & Scott podcast. He shot video of what is believed to be an ivory-billed woodpecker in 2004 on Bayou DeView.

"Who are independent observers and how many of them have to say yes?" Luneau said. "And does just one self-proclaimed or otherwise proclaimed expert have to say no to make it no?"


Seventeen scientists and birders authored a paper saying the ivory-billed woodpecker still exists, Luneau said.

"And all that was accepted in 2010 by the Fish and Wildlife Service," he said.

In Monday's meeting, Harrison said he didn't intend to make the Oct. 17, 2020, video public. He was hoping to get better video. But the Wildlife Service forced his hand, so he sent it the video in an effort to keep the agency from delisting the bird.

Harrison said the Wildlife Service is in the process of getting a high-resolution version of his video presentation on a government website where comments are collected regarding the proposal to delist.

"I know Fish and Wildlife is under pressure to either recover or delist," he said.

Harrison said he and Tim Gallagher, a writer and wildlife photographer, saw an ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas on Feb. 27, 2004.

Harrison, 67, retired July 1 from his job as associate professor of visual media at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Ala.

Many ornithologists say the woodpecker was last seen in the Big Woods of east Arkansas in 2004-05. But the last "commonly agreed upon" sighting was in Louisiana in 1944, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Although it had been considered extinct for 60 years -- from 1944 to 2004 -- the ivory-billed woodpecker has remained on the endangered species list since 1967.


Print Headline: Ivory-bill woodpecker lives, says Alabaman

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