RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
It's been nearly a year since scientists announced they'd seen and videotaped an ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas. They said the famous bird was not extinct, as widely believed. Since then, searchers have raised millions of dollars to confirm the discovery, and millions more to protect the forests and swamps where the bird was seen. But skepticism is growing. Some experts say the video does not show an ivory-billed woodpecker, but a common cousin.
NPR's Christopher Joyce has more.
MONTAGNE: someone makes a big claim, hangs the evidence out like a big piÃ±ata, and skeptics take whacks at it. In this case, the piÃ±ata is a four-second video taken in 2004 from a canoe in Arkansas' Cash River National Wildlife Refuge. It shows a perched bird, partly behind a tree trunk, then the bird takes off, and flies off from the camera. The video's become the Zapruder film of the birding world, Zapruder being the man whose movie of the Kennedy assassination kept analysts busy for decades. Scientists at Cornell University say the pattern of white on the bird's wings is unique to an ivory bill. The doubters, there are several, say it's just a pileated woodpecker, a lovely bird, but common as rice at a wedding
Now an author of famous birding books, David Alan Sibley, offers his take. He says the bird in the video isn't really perched on the tree.
DAVID ALAN SIBLEY: We're saying that the bird is behind the tree, it has lifted its wings, spread its wings completely over its back, and is starting to flap its wings as it pushes away from the tree.
: Okay, wings up, wings down, what's the difference? Well, it's all about where the white is on the wings. The ivory bill and the pileated have lots of white feathers underneath the wing, but only the ivory bill has a lot of white feathers on the top side of the wings. So if the white feathers in the video are on the underside, says Sibley, it's probably a pileated woodpecker. Same thing with the bird as it flies away: Sibley and his fellow critics say, the white you see is really on the underside of the wings.
ALAN SIBLEY: As the wings are flapping down, they're going to be twisted so that what you see from behind is the underside of the wings.
: Well that just doesn't make sense to John Fitzpatrick who runs Cornell's laboratory of ornithology. I reached him at a rustic lodge in the big woods of Arkansas where he's been looking for the bird again.
JOHN FITZPATRICK: We happen to think they're incorrect, that there's a huge twist in the wing and there, actually, is a sort of a rowing backwards. That's not how birds fly.
: Fitzpatrick says the critics cannot explain away the way the bird flies.
FITZPATRICK: It's clear that that bird is flapping at a rate that's faster than ever recorded for a pileated woodpecker.
: Fitzpatrick says his team has studied numerous videos of pileated woodpeckers, and even built models of ivory bills and pileated woodpeckers, and filmed them, too. The debate is being waged, frame by frame, in the pages of scientific journals, in this case, the latest issue of Science Magazine, but anyone can watch it on the web and decide for themselves. Ted Floyd, editor of Birding magazine says most birders are on the fence, if you will, but fascinated.
TED FLOYD: Birders can really start to get pretty heavy into questions of probability and the limits of knowledge and, oh, the conservation in management ramifications of the discovery. So, I don't think it's just 'is it there or isn't it there.'
: One thing both sides agree on--they hope the bird is there, but so far searchers have not seen it again. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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