Contact: Wendel Sloan at 505.562.2253
PORTALES—Dr. Greg Keller, assistant professor of biology at Eastern New Mexico University, has been selected to join the Cornell University search team for the newly re-discovered ivory-billed woodpecker. The bird was thought to be extinct for over 60 years until its observation in the forested and isolated swamp-lands of eastern Arkansas.
Keller will leave for two weeks over spring break, which begins March 27, to canoe, kayak, and hike through the Arkansas habitat searching for any sign that the bird is there. One of his former field assistants from Penn State is running the search.
"I heard my former assistant speak at an ornithological conference and was absolutely amazed at the prospect that a bird extinct for 60 years had decided to reappear and become part of our avifauna once more," says Keller. "I was captivated by the presentation and decided right then that I had to do my part as a conservation biologist and an ornithologist to help document this return." Keller applied for a position and was selected from a world-wide pool of applicants to be a member of the search team.
Keller's team will consist of eight searchers who will comb the White River portion of the wilderness area in chest waders, canoes and kayaks. They are academicians, professional ornithologists, and experienced birdwatchers from a variety of backgrounds. "All of them appreciate the significance of this find and want to contribute to our understanding of this species," says Keller.
On the day of the announcement about the woodpecker being re-discovered (after a year of secrecy by the research team), Keller received about 20 e-mails from friends, family, and colleagues asking if he'd heard the news – "that one of the largest woodpeckers on Earth had been taken off of the extinction list with its re-discovery. I was first convinced it was a hoax, for everyone knew that this large bird of the southeastern swamps hadn't been seen for over 60 years. As an avid birdwatcher, professional ornithologist, and a conservation biologist, I was in awe with the glimmer of a possibility that this might be true."
Keller admits that part of his interest in this project is selfish – "to be part of 'the greatest story in ornithology,' as this finding has been called. When my kids grow and understand the significance of an 'extinct' bird that I helped 're-find,' I think they'll forgive me for being gone for two weeks out of their young lives."
Keller explains that his other interest is a bit more "nebulous," and is linked to the value of people knowing what he is doing and how he is doing it.
"If I'm willing to spend two weeks away from my family, my friends, and my job in the backwoods of Arkansas, surrounded by a high density of cottonmouth poisonous snakes, mosquitoes, ticks, and other insolent critters, all to search for a bird that has only been seen by seven people over the course of 60 years, I must either be easily amused, not very bright, or extremely passionate about the potential this finding has to the world of science."
When asked if it is definitely true that the ivory-billed woodpecker exists, Keller says, "Very bluntly, 'No,' it isn't. There is video and audio evidence that is extremely convincing. There are seven – possibly more this winter – people who have witnessed the bird over the past two years. But a bigger question is if it is there, why hasn't it been seen for 60 years? Thankfully, that is the job of the search team – to try and document in any way the presence of one or more ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Big Woods of Arkansas."
According to Keller, getting more or better documentation of the bird will allow researchers at Cornell University to say with "unequivocal authority" that it does, indeed, exist. The primary research team has published several articles in peer-reviewed journals over the past year providing evidence to support the claim that the bird is back from extinction. But, as with all peer-reviewed work, there are skeptics who question the accuracy of these sightings.
"Most skeptics, me included, desperately want to believe that this story is true, yet we can't help but want to be convinced by our own personal sighting. Given the rarity of this bird, if I do not see it, I will not be disappointed. The very fact that I have done my best to help document this species is what is most important. If I actually see the bird, I'll be absolutely ecstatic. If not, I'll only be thrilled."
Keller says that the discovery of the bird is "extraordinarily unusual. This is why the call for searchers was really a call to arms for many of us. It is the Dodo, or the Great Auk, or the Elephantbird come back from world-wide loss right here within a 13-hour drive of Portales. How can I not be a part of that rediscovery?"