9/26/06 Tim Meeks, (334) 844-2445 or (678) 200-4960 (meeksta@auburn.edu)
Carol Nelson, (334) 844-8121 or (334) 309-6050 (nelsoc4@auburn.edu)


AUBURN - A research team led by Auburn University professor Geoff Hill, Ph.D., has compiled evidence that a population of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers exists in a remote river basin in the panhandle of Florida, as reported today in Avian Conservation & Ecology, an electronic scientific journal (http://www.ace-eco.org).

Hill, an author, professor and ornithologist in AU’s College of Science and Mathematics, led a kayaking expedition in May, 2005 with two research assistants, Tyler Hicks and Brian Rolek, along a section of the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle.

Soon after they started their float down the Choctawhatchee, Rolek observed an ivorybill in flight and Hill heard a double knock, the signature sound of the ivorybill. Numerous large cavities in trees and places where thick, tightly adhering bark had been scaled from dead trees added impetus to the sighting.

“It was just to be a weekend outing looking for potential habitat,” said Hill, who at the time was writing a book about bird coloration. “We really never dreamed we’d actually find an ivorybill.”

Hill and his assistants made subsequent visits to the area, located near the town of Bruce, Fla., in an effort to better document the birds. On the weekend after their initial discovery, Hicks, an expert in bird identification, got a clear view of a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which has distinct plumage, including a white trailing edge on the upper wing, white stripes down the back and an all black crest.

Hill then organized a follow-up search of the area and invited Dan Mennill, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario, to join the search team. Mennill, who is an expert at recording and analyzing animal sounds, devised a means to remotely record sounds in the swamp and erected seven listening stations in the area of the ivorybill sightings. “The regular, ongoing reports from Dr. Hill and his research team for the past 16 months have provided me an extraordinarily captivating and rewarding experience,” said Stewart Schneller, dean of the AU College of Science and Mathematics. “In turn, the excitement that exists with the anticipation of their future investigations is beyond description.”

While the Auburn and Windsor scientists are confident in their discovery that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers persist in the swamp forests along the Choctawhatchee, they realize that the evidence amassed to date is not conclusive proof.

Hill emphasized that “the only evidence that would constitute irrefutable proof is a clear photograph or video of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and such an image has to date eluded us.”

From May 2005 to May 2006, however, the Auburn/Windsor research team recorded 14 sightings of ivorybills, including two by Hill. From more than 10,000 hours of audio recordings, Mennill and his research assistant Kyle Swiston have identified more than 300 sounds that match descriptions of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

They located 20 cavities with entrances within the range recorded for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, but larger than the entrances to the cavities typically created by other birds in this area. And they noted numerous dead trees on which thick, tightly adhering bark has been scaled cleanly away, which fits the description of ivorybill feeding marks.

“Among the promising evidence are recordings of ‘kent’ vocalizations apparently being given by two birds in response to one another, and double raps recorded in conjunction with vocalizations,” said Jerome A. Jackson, Ph.D., a renowned ornithologist and professor of biology at Florida Gulf Coast University. “The researchers have presented this evidence with an appropriate note of caution, but let’s keep the hope alive that Hill and his colleagues may have quietly found an ivorybill Shangri-la along the Choctawhatchee,” said Jackson.

The scientists encourage interested parties to listen to the recordings and view photographs taken during the expeditions at www.auburn.edu/ivorybill. Based on their evidence, Hill and Mennill will expand their search for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Choctawhatchee River basin in the winter and spring of 2007.

The Hill/Mennill team will present its findings at the North American Ornithological Conference in Veracruz, Mexico on Oct. 4, 2006.

“The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, so impressive it was called the Lord God Bird in some regions, was thought to be extinct for more than 50 years,” said Hill. “Now, there is new hope for scientists, naturalists and birders that these birds persist in the panhandle of Florida.”

Auburn University is a preeminent land-grant and comprehensive research institution with more than 23,500 students and 6,500 faculty and staff. Ranked among the top 50 public universities nationally, Auburn offers more than 230 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degree programs.