Earlier this year a birding team brought back a mysterious tape of knocking noises in a Louisiana forest. It was a woodpecker, but could it be the elusive Ivory-bill? Steve Curwood speaks with expert John Fitzpatrick from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about listening for the lost bird.
CURWOOD: A new, carefully orchestrated search for the Ivory-bill has just been concluded in Louisiana. World-renowned birdwatchers spent 30 days looking through the forest. They didn't see the bird, but a few of them did record a series of drumming signals peculiar to the Ivory-bill and no other woodpecker. Now, a team from Cornell University is analyzing that sound and hoping to hear more through listening devices they've posted throughout the forest. Joining me now is John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Ornithology Lab. Welcome to Living on Earth.
FITZPATRICK: Great to be here, Steve.
CURWOOD: So tell me, Professor Fitzpatrick, what is it that you team is doing in Louisiana to find this bird?
FITZPATRICK: Well, we have 12 acoustic recording units that we put out into the forest in late January, more or less continuously recording during the day time hours, hoping to hear any acoustic signal from this bird, either its voice or its mechanical rapping sounds on the trees.
CURWOOD: Now it was, what, 1935 that another team from Cornell made the only recording we have of a live Ivory-billed Woodpecker? So why don't we take a listen to that so we can hear what we're looking for.
[SOUND OF IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER CALL AND KNOCKING]
CURWOOD: So, there's a knocking there, but there's also a kind of, well, chirping, or chatting.
FITZPATRICK: Now, that's a very distinctive woodpecker sound, and that's one of the reasons we can do this technique that we have. We're digitally recording all the sounds of the forest, and we're going to be able to listen specifically for that signature, that funny, nasal sounding signature in the voice.
CURWOOD: Now, just this January a search team went out in the Pearl River area near where you put your recorders, and they recorded something. Let's take a listen to that.
[SOUND OF RAPPING]
FITZPATRICK: Those are the sounds that everybody's wondering about right now, and in fact, on that very day, unbeknownst to the team that recorded those, we were, that morning, about a mile away and we heard similar sounds. And so, the big mystery right now is, what were those sounds? They don't sound like any of the more common woodpeckers that we have down there. Those very loud, rhythmic hammerings like that were used by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers as their distinctive rapping sound. So our idea is that there's a possibility those were Ivory-bills.
CURWOOD: Now, if it wasn't an Ivory-bill, what woodpecker would it most likely be?
FITZPATRICK: No doubt, if it was not an Ivory-bill, it would have been a Pileated Woodpecker which is the other large, big, red-crested woodpecker that's in those forests. And the Pileated is very common in those woods.
CURWOOD: Well, let's take a listen to a recording of a Pileated.
CURWOOD: So, that's way different from what we heard before.
FITZPATRICK: Yeah, that's quite different, and that, what you just heard, is the typical rap drum or drum rap of the Pileated Woodpecker being territorial.
CURWOOD: Let's play them both now, in succession. First, we'll play the mystery recording, and then we'll play the common Pileated.
[SOUND OF DRUMMING, THEN PILEATED DRUMMING]
FITZPATRICK: It's the rhythm that these sounds have that make us dubious that it's a Pileated.
CURWOOD: Now, I imagine you have more tape to analyze, if you've been running your recorders all the time out there. You must have a few hours.
FITZPATRICK: Absolutely. In fact, what you got is a small set of tape from the group that was on the ground. What we've got out there, still recording as we speak until the middle of March, we're going to end up accumulating 6,000 hours of recordings. So we've got a job in front of us.
CURWOOD: This sounds like the fate of some poor graduate student is sealed for the next 6,000 hours.
FITZPATRICK: Can you imagine how tough that would be? Fortunately, we have at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we've developed a very sophisticated acoustic software that will allow us to go very quickly through those digital sounds and look for the ones that might be interesting for that graduate student to listen to.
CURWOOD: What are those key sounds you're going to look for?
FITZPATRICK: Well, we're going to listen for two main kinds of signatures: the mechanical rapping sounds like we were just listening to, and we'll also be listening for those nasal sounds that the Ivory-bill made because it would be the only bird that could make those, down there.
[SOUND OF IVORY-BILL]
CURWOOD: How would it feel to find this bird?
FITZPATRICK: It's totally impossible to describe. Anybody who knows birds in North America would drop to their knees and weep if they saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It's just one of the most magical birds that has ever lived anywhere in the world, the largest of our woodpeckers. Nothing can bring this bird back to life if it's gone, and it might very well be. The big part of this story that we're trying to put an end to or resurrect is the complete destruction of the bottomland forest of the southeastern U.S., over the course of 100 years. We just cut it all. And it's actually much better now down there for Ivory-bills than it was 50 years ago. So, if they're still there, then they have survived the worst of it and things are actually getting better for them, and that's what, of course, everybody hopes.
CURWOOD: John Fitzpatrick is the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Thanks for taking this time with us.
FITZPATRICK: Been my pleasure. Thank you.
CURWOOD: Our story on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was written and produced by Brenda Tremblay. The technical producer was Dave Sluberski. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.
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