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Bird news stuns UNL prof
Ivory-billed Woodpecker. (Joel Sartore, courtesy of the University of Nebraska State Museum)

The news doesn't get much better than this in the birding world: an ivory-billed woodpecker, long believed to be extinct, was spotted in a swamp forest of eastern Arkansas.

Oakwood College associate professor Bobby Harrison reportedly sat down on a log, put his face in his hands and began to sob after seeing the bird fly across the bayou fewer than 70 feet in front of him.

"Just to think this bird made it into the 21st century gives me chills. It's like a funeral shroud has been pulled back, giving us a glimpse of a living bird, rising Lazarus-like  from the grave," Harrison said in a release from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University.

The last confirmed sighting of the species in the United States was more than 60 years ago. It vanished after the destruction of millions of acres of virgin forests in the South.

"I was dumbfounded," said ornithologist and author Paul Johnsgard, now a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Biological Sciences.

He heard the news from his friend and colleague Jim Rosowski, who heard it Thursday on National Public Radio.

"I thought he was joking," Johnsgard said. "If he said they had found a living mammoth in Nebraska, I couldn't have been more surprised."

In all his years of birdwatching, Johnsgard had never seen an ivory-billed woodpecker. He said George Sutton, a friend and professor of ornithology at the University of Oklahoma, spotted a pair in Louisiana during the 1930s.

"Well, he was the only person I have ever known who actually saw one," Johnsgard said. "I think virtually all ornithologists had written them off a long time ago. Sort of like the search for the Holy Grail — there were a few people who believed."

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Johnsgard has no plans to travel to Arkansas to try to see the bird. He hopes other ornithologists and birdwatchers stay away, too, and that the exact location is kept secret. He said the discovery underscores the need to protect old-growth forests, like the one where the bird was found.

Could there be more? "There's bound to be more than one," he said. "I don't think a single woodpecker would live 60-odd years."

Johnsgard has seen two stuffed  ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Nebraska State Museum. Back in the early 1960s, he found the specimens were misidentified.

Tom Labedz, collections manager for the museum, said little is known on the specimens or where they came from.

The specimens were donated to the University of Nebraska in the late 1880s or early 1900s, Labedz said. The zoology department had its own bird collection back then and later it came to the museum.

There hasn't been much demand to see the specimens, which were last on display in 2003. He hopes the publicity generates new interest in the stuffed birds.

"This is kind of neat," he said. "I'm stunned that the species was found."

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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