The ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to have been pushed into extinction by widespread logging of the American Southeast, has been spotted by scientists 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 disappearance of the American wilderness. Its reappearance was hailed Thursday 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.
The new conclusion that the species still exists is based on at least eight separate sightings in the last year -- many of them by experienced ornithologists -- and a video captured by David Luneau of the University of Arkansas, 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 Thursday in the online version of the journal Science.
The bird is hard to misidentify. It has a 3-foot wingspan, is 19 to 21 inches long, and has distinctive black-and-white markings. They are 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 Thursday, where she announced $10 million in new funds to bolster restoration of the Big Woods of southern Arkansas, where the bird was spotted.
Biologist E.O. Wilson called them "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 also 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 three 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 Thursday. "It's such a striking bird that, when people would see it, they would say, 'Lord, God, what a woodpecker!' "
Scientists do not know how many ivory-billed woodpeckers there are in the region or whether they have 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 new 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.