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Ivory bill's doubters convinced by tapes from Arkansas woods

By Kelly P. Kissel, Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark., Aug. 1 — Researchers who last month questioned the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker, saying blurry videotape of a bird in flight wasn't enough evidence, have changed their minds after hearing recordings from the wild.

The doubters had prepared an article for a scientific journal questioning whether the bird, once thought extinct, had really been found in an Arkansas swamp. They now plan to withdraw the article.

''We were very skeptical of the first published reports,'' Richard Prum, an ornithologist at Yale University, said in a statement. ''But the thrilling new sound recordings provide clear and convincing evidence that the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct.''

The audiotape evidence also seems to indicate more than one ivory-billed woodpecker in the area. ''The bird that we saw had to have a mommy and a daddy,'' said Scott Simon, director of the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas. ''We have solid evidence for one. We believe there are more.''

Ornithologists announced in April that an ivory-billed woodpecker — a bird believed to have been extinct since 1944 — was living in a swamp in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Arkansas. A kayaker had reported seeing the bird a year earlier.

Bird experts at Yale, Kansas and Florida Gulf Coast universities last month questioned the evidence, saying it was only strong enough only to suggest the presence of an ivory bill, not proof.

Then the recordings were provided to them by the Cornell ornithology lab.

''We sent them some sounds this summer from the Arkansas woods,'' said lab director John W. Fitzpatrick, who initially helped confirm the claim. ''We appreciate their ability to say they are now believers.''

Using audio equipment set out in various places near the Cache and White rivers in Arkansas last winter, the Cornell ornithologists made 17,000 hours of recordings. ''Some sounds were explainable only by being an ivory-billed woodpecker,'' Fitzpatrick said.

One portion of the tape includes the bird's distinctive double raps on a tree — one echoing from the distance, the other very close.

''It's communication typical of the ivory-billed. It's one of the more exciting cuts from the tape,'' and indicates there is likely more than one bird, Fitzpatrick said. He said the audio had only recently been discovered on the tapes, which are being analyzed with computer assistance.

The Cornell researchers plan to release the audio publicly at the American Ornithologists Union meeting in Santa Barbara, Calif., Aug. 23-27.

The ornithologists went to the site where the audio was made but were unable to find the birds. ''We're definitely on the trail,'' Fitzpatrick said.

In the Cache River area, 320,000 acres of public land has been set aside in an effort to protect the rare bird's habitat, and Simon says his group hopes to expand the area to 600,000 acres — a region about half the size of Delaware.