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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

The candles are lit, the trees are decorated and bird watchers are blanketing the country with binoculars and check lists. It can only mean one thing: It's that time of the year again--the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count. And as always, we have been covering this bird count for many years. Actually, the count itself is over a hundred years old; it's still going strong. It's a very big--it's a huge volunteer effort. There are over 2,000 separate counts that are planned, which will provide data that will allow scientists to track the health of birds in North America. and this year they will be paying close attention to the birds in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf region, hoping to get baseline numbers that will help them track recovery in those areas. We'll hear more about this 'cause we're going to be checking in with the Christmas count this hour.

And also with this year's biggest bird story. Remember what that story was conservationwise anyhow? The long-thought extinct ivory-billed woodpecker has made its presence felt, albeit fleetingly, in eastern Arkansas. Over the past two years, researchers have collected video. They've got sound recordings, eyewitness reports of the woodpecker believed to be a single male. The season's search for the bird is on right now, and scientists and volunteers are looking hard to spot the woodpecker and signs of a nest. And we'll check in on the search and talk about the evidence and the recovery plan for the woodpecker. So if you'd like to talk birds, give us a call. Our number is 1 (800) 989-8255; 1 (800) 989-TALK. And as always, you can surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com for links we'll be talking about this hour.

Let me introduce my guests, if you will. Geoff LeBaron is the Christmas Bird Count director at the National Audubon Society. He joins us today from his office in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.

Welcome back to the program.

Mr. GEOFF LeBARON (National Audubon Society): It's a pleasure, Ira. It's great to be back.

FLATOW: Thank you. Kenneth Rosenberg is the Conservation Science director in the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He joined me from the studios of Cornell University's campus there.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Rosenberg.

Dr. KENNETH ROSENBERG (Cornell University): Thank you, Ira. It's great to be here. And hi, Geoff.

Mr. LeBARON: Hi there, Ken.

FLATOW: I'm sure you know each other. You must...

Mr. LeBARON: We do. We have for years.

FLATOW: I'm sure.

Dr. ROSENBERG: All the birdheads know each other.

FLATOW: Do you call each other birdheads? Is that the lingo?

Mr. LeBARON: I guess it's like computer geek, so...

Dr. ROSENBERG: Sometimes.

FLATOW: OK. Well, Geoff, tell us how is the count going under way? Give us the--you know, a nutshell of what's going on this year.

Mr. LeBARON: Well, just as a quick recap for anybody that hasn't listened before. Each Christmas count is done within a 15-mile diameter circle on one given day in the official count period, which is--runs from December 14th to January 5th every season, and this year will be the 106th year that the count's been conducted. People go out in groups and in their specific area and actually census birds in that they're actually counting not only every species but the numbers of birds of each species. So that's it in a nutshell. You can either participate out in the field in a field party, or if you happen to life in a count circle, you can actually count birds at your feeders as they come in and submit those numbers to the organizers of each individual count, like Ken.

FLATOW: You can actually count them at your birdfeeder if you sign up as part of the official count?

Mr. LeBARON: Right. As long as you live within a count circle, it's perfectly fine.

FLATOW: And how many counts are there going on right now?

Mr. LeBARON: Well, right--I mean, probably not many right now on a weekday, although there may be more than average for a weekday today because when the holidays actually occur on the weekends, that takes a day out of some of the potential dates for people actually conducting their counts, and a few more of them than average will be done during--on the Fridays and Mondays. I know one of the counts that I would ordinarily be doing tomorrow I'll be doing on Monday down in Rhode Island. Right now we've got 68 counts completed this year in terms of their data entry. Now there are a lot more counts than that that have been conducted since they started being done on the 14th of December, so we're well under way and things seem to be going very well. I know the counts that I went on last weekend were absolutely great here in the Northeast. I also know they had some real weather problems in the West.

FLATOW: Right. I mentioned in the introduction that the Gulf area was an especially important place to be watching this year.

Mr. LeBARON: Yeah, it's one of the--there's a couple of key areas that we're quite curious to see how things go this year. Obviously, the Gulf was just devastated by both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Some areas, by both--you know, western Louisiana, which Ken knows quite well, along the coast it was just really hammered down there. I'm very encouraged to see that some of the counts are being done this year down in the region, and I'm looking forward to getting data from those so that we can just sort of track the recovery of those areas.

FLATOW: Ken, can you give us an idea of how much damage was done for the bird sanctuaries down there? Ken, are you there?

Dr. ROSENBERG: Oh.

FLATOW: I'm sorry.

Dr. ROSENBERG: I thought that was for...

FLATOW: Well, you've--Geoff said you're down there. I thought I'd take advantage of you being down there and see if...

Dr. ROSENBERG: No, no, I'm not down there. I used to be about 10, 15 years ago.

FLATOW: Oh. So you...

Dr. ROSENBERG: I'm very familiar with those areas. I've followed some of the talk on the birding listservs, and I know that those areas were incredibly devastated.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ROSENBERG: All the buildings, of course, are gone. The restaurants we used to eat at are gone. A lot of the bird habitat apparently did survive, though, and the dedicated people are going to try to get out there on whatever roads are still there, and I think they've just last weekend conducted some of the counts I used to do in southwest Louisiana. So like Geoff, I'm very eager to find out those results.

FLATOW: Well, let's talk about another interesting result that I know you know a lot about, and that is this ivory-billed woodpecker, which is--supposedly has been spotted, right? Based on evidence that you've collected, you believe you've found one.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Well, it's an incredible story and it started about a year ago in early February of, well, 2004. There was indeed a sighting of this bird which was believed to be extinct for 60 years, and the evidence that was accumulated since then convinces us that the bird is not extinct, that it exists in Arkansas and possibly even a few other places, and we've been working very hard to follow up on that evidence ever since then.

FLATOW: Geoff, when was the last time that anybody actually counted on in your Christmas count?

Mr. LeBARON: The last definite sightings were in 1938 and also in 1934 in the Singer Tract actually down in Louisiana. It was the last few pairs of ivorybills that were being well-studied, so those birds actually are actually there in the Christmas count database, and I'm looking forward to including some in future seasons.

FLATOW: Ken, so why did they die out? Was there an actual decline that you can document, or did they just disappear?

Dr. ROSENBERG: Well, it's very well-documented. The bird was a very rare bird even by the turn of the 20th century, and the primary cause of its demise was the complete clearing of the tall virgin forests of the southeastern United States. This bird was a symbol of the wilderness in the Southeast historically, and it was a symbol of the tall forests along the river bottoms. But also long gone, the tall pine forests of Southeastern US that occurred and that were completely cleared by the early 1900s.

FLATOW: 'Cause I--you talk about the trees. I have seen nests of pileated--Is that how you say it?--woodpeckers in my back yard, and they make a hole the size of a shoe box. I mean, I imagine, then, you could--they need these trees to nest and if the trees are gone there's no place for them to nest.

Dr. ROSENBERG: That's true. The ivorybill, of course, also nests in the large trees, and makes a hole even bigger than the one the pileated makes, but the ivorybills also depended on these large trees for food. And this bird was a specialist on very large beetle larva, the long-horned beetles that have attacked the largest trees just as they were dying and got in just underneath the bark, and the ivorybills would fly long distances to find recently dead or dying trees and strip off the bark and get these caterpillars before the other woodpeckers could get to that food source.

FLATOW: And their range was mostly in the South then?

Dr. ROSENBERG: All across the Southeast...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. ROSENBERG: ...this area in east Arkansas was part of the historic range. It extended to--from easternmost Texas all the way around through Florida where they were quite common, up into the Carolinas.

FLATOW: OK. Let's talk about--'cause we have some interesting audio to play. Let's talk about the evidence--the acoustic evidence, at least--that you have accumulated and given us a few clips to listen to. Tell us what we're going to be listening to first.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Well, first, the acoustics are part of a body of evidence that we've accumulated and that we've presented and that includes sightings of the birds--at least seven well-documented sightings--and a video that we've analyzed in excruciating detail. It's not a very good quality video, but we believe it is diagnostic evidence. And then these sounds that we've recorded. We've been using a lot of technology in our search including putting microphones out through this vast forest, especially in areas that people can't get to very often that can record the sounds continuously through the day. And we've picked up some sounds that we think are very intriguing. We are not willing to say they're 100 percent ivory-billed woodpeckers, but they sound very similar to the known sounds.

And so what we're going to hear today are some of the sounds of the ivorybill. There's only one known recording ever made, and it was made by Arthur Allen from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology back in 1935 studying those birds that Geoff mentioned in Louisiana. And they obtained a fantastic recording of the bird, and it's the only one we have, and that's what we're using as a model for what we're listening for in the swamps.

FLATOW: All right. Let's listen to that 1935 recording.

(Soundbite of ivory-billed woodpecker recording)

FLATOW: Just like a humping there.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Yeah. That sound has been described by a lot of the early naturalists as a child's tin horn.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ROSENBERG: And it's a very distinctive sound. One of the issues we have with these microphones is this recording made by Arthur Allen back in '35 even with the equipment that they had then--they were very close to the bird and it's a very clear recording of the birds right at the nest. And we're expecting that if we hear those sounds, they're going to be much further away and therefore perhaps not sound as clear. So the next cut is actually the same recording--it's the Arthur Allen recording from 1935--but played back to one of our microphones in the swamp from about 150 yards away.

FLATOW: Let me just warn our listeners, you may have to turn up your radio to listen to this. Go ahead.

Dr. ROSENBERG: That's right.

FLATOW: Matt, let's see if we can hear it.

(Soundbite of reworked recording)

FLATOW: That's very far away. It's more noise than bird in that one.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Yeah, you can hear some of the hiss of the microphone.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ROSENBERG: The reason that I wanted to play that is because immediately next, I'm going to play a recording that our microphones actually picked up in the White River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas of some sounds that are also far away but that we think sound very similar to what you just heard. So let's see what the listeners think.

(Soundbite of Arkansas recordings)

FLATOW: Those birds in the foreground make it hard to hear the very faint background.

Dr. ROSENBERG: That's right.

FLATOW: But it does sound very similar to my ear.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Yeah, that was a Carolina wren that was screaming in the foreground, but those individual hornlike notes are very similar to our ear and they also look almost identical when you do an analysis that displays what that sound looks like on the computer screen.

FLATOW: And what about...

Dr. ROSENBERG: And we...

FLATOW: ...I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Well, we've picked up about four different examples of those kinds of calls all from that same area on the White River, and we believe it may very likely be an ivory-billed woodpecker, but it's impossible to say because nobody actually saw the bird making those sounds.

FLATOW: What ever evidence do you have? There's--you have brought something also called the knocking sounds that they might...

Dr. ROSENBERG: The knocking. Well, the ivory-billed woodpecker is known to produce a different sound. All woodpeckers, rather than singing like a songbird to advertise their territory, they actually drum on a tree or on your gutter pipe, which a lot of people don't like. But the--each species of woodpecker has a very distinctive drumming sound. And the ivory-billed woodpecker was known to have what was called a double knock. There are two strikes against the wood that are very, very close together and to your ear might even sound like a single knock or a knock with an echo. There's no known recording of an ivorybill making that sound, but we have good recordings of close relatives of the ivory-billed woodpecker that live in South America. And so the first cut we have is a double knock sound from the robust woodpecker in South America, and then followed closely by two examples of sounds that our microphones picked up that sound very much like that sound in Arkansas.

(Soundbite of woodpecker)

Dr. ROSENBERG: OK, that's the robust woodpecker.

FLATOW: That's the robust one, that's very--yeah, it's very--it's like a little--short little machine gun blast there, coupled together.

Dr. ROSENBERG: That's right.

FLATOW: And then the next sound, you're saying, is--this might be proof of--this sound might be proof of the other woodpecker you're looking for.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Well, again, proof is a strong word, but these are...

FLATOW: Evidence.

Dr. ROSENBERG: The next two are sounds that sound to us indistinguishable and again look indistinguishable from that double knock.

(Soundbite of woodpecker)

FLATOW: That was really in the background. That was way far away.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Yeah, you have to listen very closely to pick it up.

(Soundbite of woodpecker)

FLATOW: That was--yeah. You had to listen very carefully, but...

Dr. ROSENBERG: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...the knock was there. All right. We'll...

Dr. ROSENBERG: These are not great, but this is what we're dealing with, and we have about 50 examples of those...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. ROSENBERG: ...double knocks that we're analyzing.

FLATOW: Ken, hang on a second 'cause I have to remind everybody that this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Talking with Ken Rosenberg and Geoff LeBaron about birds this hour. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.

Geoff, what do you think of the evidence? Are you convinced? Remain agnostic? You want to see more or what?

Mr. LeBARON: I am convinced that Ken and his team are convinced they're there, which makes me believe that they really are. I'm--you know, I certainly wish--you know, it'd be great if we had some wonderful photographs or closer recordings or whatever, but I'm sure that Ken and Fitz(ph) and everybody up at the lab wish that a lot more than I do. So I am, I guess, a hopeful believer.

And, Ken, it's the first time I've actually heard those recordings. I've tried to play them off the Web site and for some reason my machine, my computer won't do it. So it's very interesting.

And we actually, as you--a lot of people that have been involved with the Christmas Bird Count program that I know are actually down helping with the search this year and have been over the last couple of seasons. So it's a subject that's near and dear to my heart as well as a lot of other people's. And we're all sort of very much hoping and expecting that the birds are still there.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, what are you doing to search for them. Are you involved in the bird count, looking for the birds?

Mr. LeBARON: Well, there--I mean, there will be a Christmas Bird Count, I think, conducted in the area in White River, which includes some of the search area. There are currently and have been for a number of years counts done in other areas where there potentially could be ivorybills. So we--in terms of the Christmas count itself, there's this one new count in Arkansas that hopefully will be run this year and for the future. You know, I would be absolutely stunned if they actually get an ivorybill this year. And it may take a while before we do. But the Christmas Count basically will be more valuable once the birds are, you know, starting to have a better recovery and also, like we started to talk about with Louisiana and things like that, in terms of a larger-scale monitoring of what's going on in the longer term with birds in general.

FLATOW: So, I mean, there's not a bunch of people wading into the forests, the swamp there looking for the birds.

Mr. LeBARON: Well, I suspect there are, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ROSENBERG: Yeah, they're cer...

Mr. LeBARON: ...not in terms of a Christmas Bird Count.

FLATOW: No, I meant bird count, yeah.

Mr. LeBARON: Yeah. No, it's--you know, the Christmas Count--new Christmas Counts need to be started with, you know, a lot of planning...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. LeBARON: ...and careful thought, and they can't overlap existing counts or anything like that. So we--there is a new count which I believe is being done or possibly has been done down there already--I don't know for sure the season--that is being set up as a part of the monitoring of the recovery of the woodpeckers.

FLATOW: All right. We have to take a break. We'll come back and talk lots more with Ken Rosenberg, Conservation Science director at Cornell, and also Geoff LeBaron of the National Audubon Society. Take your calls about the bird count, how maybe you can get involved in it, how many different ways that it's taking place. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Announcements)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

It's our annual bird show. We're talking about the Christmas Bird Count and the ivory-billed woodpecker. My guests are Ken Rosenberg, Conservation Science director at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University, and Geoff LeBaron, director of the Christmas Bird Count at the National Audubon Society in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.

And I know Ken wanted to jump in. We were talking about whether the Christmas Bird Count was looking for the ivory-billed woodpecker, but I know that Ken has some knowledge of them, searching to make sure they're 99 and 44/100ths percent sure of the ivory wood--well, that's a bad way to bring ivory into this, but you're searching for it, aren't you, Ken, or you know people who are?

Dr. ROSENBERG: Oh, absolutely. And I wanted to follow up on some of Geoff's comments about the importance of having these bird-watchers out there continuing to look. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is taking the lead on the search and on the research efforts to study the bird in that area, but we certainly are depending on lots of other groups in a partnership to do all of this work, including the Audubon Society in Arkansas, Nature Conservancy, the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Arkansas, Game and Fish Commission on the ground there. We currently have 20 full-time people who are employed to do the searching in our study area in Arkansas. And then in addition to that, we have over a hundred volunteer birders that have signed up and that we're rotating through in groups of 14 people every two weeks to help with the searching. And we're encouraging--a lot of the area is still open to the public, and we're encouraging people to go down there and to continue to look on their own if they can as well as continue to search, as Geoff said, in a few of the other places where the ivorybills still could be.

FLATOW: You talked about the huge nest hole that the bird makes in a tree. Would that be an interesting thing to look for instead of just the bird?

Dr. ROSENBERG: That's--yes, absolutely. And that's exactly what a lot of the full-time people are spending their time doing, transects through the swamp, searching for cavities, for large cavities and cataloging every single one of them. We're using a lot of technology. We're using geographic information systems, GPS units, to mark the exact location of every cavity we find, these large holes in the big trees, and be able to map those. And so that's going to determine where we might concentrate our search in the future. We do vigils, waiting and watching at these cavity holes, hoping that a bird will fly in to roost at night or out in the morning. So we're trying to take advantage of everything we can down there.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones, to Karen in Milwaukee. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

KAREN (Caller): Hi. Thank you very much for taking my call. Well, I don't have a bird story about the US, but I was near Strasbourg, France, in May of this year and I took a walk at midnight because of the time change; I couldn't sleep. So I had the wonderful fortune to come up on three--I believe they must have been thrush nightingales. I think--I guess maybe that's more of a question. And I don't know for sure, but the song was just fantastic. The song--there were three of them and they were singing, obviously, I think, competing for females because one would do his song, another then would join in 10, 20 seconds later. And it was just a marvelous experience. So--just would like to hear your response off the air as to whether or not they were nightingales and if they were potentially thrush nightingales. It was around the second week in May. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you. You're welcome.

Well, what do you say?

Mr. LeBARON: Certainly they might have been nightingales, but also the thing in Europe that's called blackbird, which actually is a thrush. It's actually quite closely related to our American robin, does sing pretty much all night long. I mean, there's--which is The Beatles song, "Blackbirds Singing in the Dead of Night" is actually accurate in that respect. So they could well have been blackbirds as well, which are--like I said, they are thrushes. So I don't know if Ken has thoughts, too, but...

Dr. ROSENBERG: Yeah. I mean, and even if they were nightingales, the nightingale is a type of thrush also and it sings all night. In fact, it's probably the most famous bird in the world in terms of literature and songs about it, as far as a bird song goes. And actually quite a few birds sing at night. If you live in the Southern United States, you're often kept awake all night by mockingbirds singing all night long.

FLATOW: Yeah. One of the Marx Brothers sang a song about that, but I don't want to get into that one.

Geoff, one thing we haven't heard very much about this year is West Nile virus, which we know attacks birds.

Mr. LeBARON: Right.

FLATOW: Is that something that you're looking at this year, too?

Mr. LeBARON: We are quite concerned that West Nile has now reached the West Coast, which sounds a little bit funny. But it's basically spread across at least the southern portion of the continent to California and is now continuing its march northward in a fairly well-established way, which means that an increasing number of species, of bird species, are in contact with it and becoming--you know, we're starting to just sort of get the tip of the iceberg as to how some of these species are able to survive the disease.

The birds that--well, three years ago we actually did--we didn't want Christmas Bird Count people to pay special attention to species of interest, but we needed--we were post-count, doing analyses on species of interest, which then included American crow and blue jay and red-tailed hawks and great horned owls and things in the East that seemed to be especially susceptible to West Nile.

Out in the West in the sage country, one of the birds we're very interested to sort of track how it's doing are the two different sage grouses. The greater sage grouse, which is the one that's fairly widespread, and also the Gunnison sage grouse, which has a very local, small breeding range and a very small population.

The other bird of real concern currently is the yellow-billed magpie, which has a small known world range--I mean a small world range in central California. And corvids especially, crows and jays and magpies, are very susceptible to West Nile. So we're sort of post count--we want to make sure that people don't actually focus on counting the birds that they think might be and paying extra attention to the birds that they think might be affected, because actually if you go out and spend extra effort then you might actually find more than you normally would and that'll kind of--it won't be the good baseline data that we need. So...

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. LeBARON: ...we will be looking at that and are continuing to look at the effects of West Nile as it spreads across the country, too.

FLATOW: You know, in this holiday season, we do a lot of research on different plants and animals. And I was reading the other day about mistletoe. And I didn't realize how some birds really rely on mistletoe for food and shelter.

Mr. LeBARON: Definitely. The phainopepla out west is--it's the only silky flycatcher. They're related to the waxwings, cedar waxwings that we have fairly commonly around. But this is a neat bird that actually keys pretty much on mistletoe berries and actually they'll make their nests in the mistletoe clumps in the vegetation in the Southwest.

FLATOW: Yeah, they...

Dr. ROSENBERG: Yeah...

FLATOW: Go ahead; I'm sorry.

Dr. ROSENBERG: I was just going to add that the mistletoe, because it's rooted up in the tree and not on the ground, it's dependent on birds to disperse its seeds. And there are birds that have very specialized digestive systems for eating mistletoe and passing the seeds very quickly so that they'll stick to branches and then propagate the mistletoe plants themselves.

FLATOW: Doesn't mistletoe mean something like dung twig or something like that, for the droppings of the birds? You can look that up while...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LeBARON: Do a Google search.

Dr. ROSENBERG: I'll be there.

FLATOW: I already did the search.

Let's go to the phones. 1 (800) 989-8255. David in Constantia, New York, is that right?

DAVID (Caller): There you go.

FLATOW: Where...

DAVID: Not too many people get that pronunciation right there, Ira. Pretty good.

FLATOW: Every once in a while I get lucky. Where is Constantia?

DAVID: We're about a half a mile north of Syracuse on the north shore of Oneida Lake.

FLATOW: Ah.

DAVID: Yeah.

FLATOW: Thank you for phoning. What's on your mind?

DAVID: Well, I just quickly wanted to mention first of all, I've got quite a bit of activity in the back yard here today. I've got a pair of ruffed grouse in our crab apple tree we've been watching and about 30 goldfinches at the feeder. And first time this year, we got a good look at a red-bellied woodpecker at the feeder.

FLATOW: What are you feeding them?

DAVID: Pretty much just black-oil sunflower seeds.

FLATOW: Wow.

DAVID: Yeah, and thistle.

FLATOW: You must've had a great turnout.

DAVID: Yeah. So, anyway, I also wanted to mention about the pileated--well, the ivory-billed. About 20 years ago I happened to be visiting--was on a job in Ithaca and I checked out the School of Ornithology's birding area, Sapsucker Woods. And I was really fascinated by the specimen they had in a glass case of an ivory-billed. And I was wondering if they still had it.

FLATOW: Yeah, they're at Cornell, huh?

DAVID: Yes.

Dr. ROSENBERG: There's a very interesting story about that bird because that bird, I think, in the early 1980s--I'm not sure when you were there--was given on loan to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to be on display at the refuge, this place called the Singer Tract where the ivorybills were last known in Louisiana. Later, after the forest was cleared, it became a national wildlife refuge and a lot of the forest has grown back. It's called the Tensaw National Wildlife Refuge. And those ivorybills have been on display in the visitor center down at Tensaw, but they're still owned by Cornell and they're on loan down there.

DAVID: Oh, I see. And also about five years ago, my wife swears she saw an ivory-billed here in our woods. And she was so sure that she saw an ivory-billed that I got on the phone and called Benjamin Burtt--he writes a column here in Syracuse in the local newspaper. And he assured me that there was no way, because it was extinct. And I just think it's fascinating that we're now seeing one.

Dr. ROSENBERG: We are getting hundreds of phone calls like that or at least we were, especially last spring, as you might imagine. And we have a Web site set up that you can get to through the Cornell site or through ivorybill.org, where anybody can report sightings, even historic ones, that that they think might be ivorybills.

DAVID: And one last comment. You know, I've always thought about this idea of extinction and I thought, boy, with such a vast Earth, how can we be sure an animal is truly extinct? And do you think this would call into question extinction itself?

FLATOW: Dodo birds are...

DAVID: Yeah. Dodo birds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID: ...(Unintelligible) dodo birds?

Dr. ROSENBERG: That is an--that's a very interesting question because it's extremely difficult to document when something has actually disappeared.

Mr. LeBARON: Right.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Of course, if you see it, you know it's there. If you don't see it, then you don't really know. And, you know...

FLATOW: But it also makes you think about how many birds we may not have--you know, like in the rain forest, we may not know even exist.

DAVID: Right.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Ah, absolutely.

Mr. LeBARON: Exactly. We're...

Dr. ROSENBERG: Yeah, great point.

Mr. LeBARON: ...still discovering new birds. And actually, just in terms of the sometimes doubt about extinction, if it wasn't for that doubt about extinction, we might not be talking about whether, you know--this rediscovery of the ivory-billed, because people have just not wanted to believe that the bird was extinct and they've continued to look for it.

FLATOW: That's interesting. 1 (800) 989-8255.

Laura in Minnesota. Hi, Laura.

LAURA (Caller): Hi. I want to let you know I was fortunate enough to experience the great gray owl eruption in northern Minnesota earlier this year. And that was fabulous. My question had to do with research I've heard about done by Wisconsin researchers thinking that cats were the cause of a real significant decline in, I think, grassland birds. And I wonder if the bird count data would show that or is part of the data that that researchers relied on.

Mr. LeBARON: Well, certainly, I mean, Christmas Bird Count data doesn't--it shows what's happening to the birds if there are trend data that is going on. If birds are increasing or decreasing, then the Christmas Bird Count will actually show us either on a continental or a regional basis what's happening or if their ranges are changing, which actually I was going to say red-bellied woodpecker is an interesting example of that. But it doesn't tell us necessarily what the cause is. Now definitely cats can--outdoor cats, cats that are even indoor or outdoor cats, definitely take a lot of wildlife. So there's a significant local effect on many populations of birds by cats that are outdoor. And I'm no cat lover, but I always keep--you know, we keep our cats indoor, which is better both for the cats and for the wildlife. But they are just another of the outdoor predators that can be quite to the detriment of local populations of birds.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Laura. Have a good weekend and a happy holiday.

LAURA: Thank you. Bye.

FLATOW: Bye-bye.

1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. We're talking about birds this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News with Ken Rosenberg of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Geoff LeBaron of the National Audubon Society, talking about the bird count.

Can you detect any changes in something like global warming yet or, you know, migration changes where they're roosting in warmer climes, things like that?

Mr. LeBARON: Well, actually, I really did want to mention--the previous caller talked about the red-bellied woodpecker at his feeder in northern New York or central New York, and that's a real interesting story that you can actually go to the Christmas Count Web site and actually search on red-bellied woodpecker and actually look at it sort of march northward over the past century in terms of where it is found on Christmas Bird Counts. So it's--certainly there are quite a few species that are extending their range northward in the winter. We actually--the lab, the researchers at the lab including Ken and I did actually try to do some pretty specific inquiries into whether any of these range-shifting birds were responding to climate change. And we have the feeling that they are, but it's pretty difficult to actually stick your thumb on exactly what the root cause is of any of these range-shifting species.

FLATOW: Might they follow the trees, some kinds of trees that move northward? You know, they...

Mr. LeBARON: They easily could.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. LeBARON: I mean, trees or different kinds of food sources.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. LeBARON: You know, it's...

Dr. ROSENBERG: I was going to throw in that the difficulty in showing that it's any one particular cause, like global warming, is exactly that. It could be expansion of trees; it could be just that many more people are feeding birds further and further north.

Mr. LeBARON: Exactly.

Dr. ROSENBERG: So it's very difficult to tease that apart, but the importance of these long-term data sets that we now have on birds like the Christmas Bird Count and some of these other monitoring programs are probably the best examples of environmental data that we can analyze to test whether things like global warming are actually taking place.

FLATOW: If someone wants to get involved as a volunteer or just get their backyard feeder in the mix, how do they contact you or get involved in, let's say, next year's bird count?

Mr. LeBARON: Well, there's a Get Involved link on the Christmas Count home page, which is www.audubon.org/bird/cbc, and there's a--you'll see a link there that says `Get Involved.' And that will show you where local counts are near you. And you can contact the local organizers that way. Or perhaps the best way is just to contact your local either Audubon chapter, bird club, nature center. Nearly every place in the US and in southern Canada there's, you know, a local group that's doing Christmas Bird Counts. And that's what you really--what people need to do, is get in touch with their local coordinators.

FLATOW: And you'll have to decide which areas that you are counting next year, right?

Mr. LeBARON: Right. Well, that's--the organizers of each individual count...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. LeBARON: ...or compiler is the one who actually sort of marshals his forces and puts new people in with existing parties.

FLATOW: Well, gentlemen, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us. And good luck bird-counting and bird-watching.

Mr. LeBARON: Thank you very much.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: And have a joyful holiday season to both of you.

Mr. LeBARON: Thank you. You, too. And good luck with the search, Ken.

Dr. ROSENBERG: Thanks, we need it.

Mr. LeBARON: Yeah.

FLATOW: Kenneth Rosenberg is the Conversation Science director in the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and Geoff LeBaron is the director of the Christmas Bird Count at the National Audubon Society in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.

(Credits)

FLATOW: If you'd like to write us, send your letters to SCIENCE FRIDAY, 55 West 45th Street, fourth floor, New York, New York 10036. Also surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com. If you missed the links to the Audubon Society, we've got them up there. You can just go over to their Web site by linking to ours. And also SCIENCE FRIDAY's Kids' Connection is back and making curricula, free curricula for science teachers, teachers of all kinds, even if you don't teach science. You can just click on the `teachers' button on the left side. We make free curricula for you to use in SCIENCE FRIDAY in your schools and classrooms.

I'm Ira Flatow, wishing you a happy holiday season.

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