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The Hunt for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Who Are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student wondering how El Niño will affect tomorrow's weather. The scientist studying connections between ozone and climate change. And the farmer using satellite pictures to keep track of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all curious about the Earth system. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

A large black-and-white bird with a red crest on its head clings to the side of a tree
Look closely at the Earth and environment around you. You never know what you'll see. What Gene Sparling saw was a striking black-and-white bird. Sparling made the discovery in 2004, as he was kayaking along the Cache River in Arkansas.

Image to right: An artist's image of what an ivory-billed woodpecker looks like. Credit: George M. Sutton/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

This wasn't just any other bird sighting. Sparling is not a bird expert. But he knew the bird's markings were not those of the common pileated woodpecker that lives in those old forests. The only explanation was that he had seen an ivory-billed woodpecker.

The ivory-billed woodpecker looks similar to its pileated cousin but is slightly larger. Both have crests at the top of their heads, an area called the pileum. The ivory-billed woodpecker is a majestic bird that many scientists had thought was extinct. It had last been seen about 60 years ago.

Sparling quickly realized the importance of his finding. He went home to write about it in an online bird chat. Ornithologists have since confirmed that at least one ivory-billed woodpecker still lives in Arkansas. An ornithologist is a scientist who studies birds.

Woody Turner
Now, scientists at NASA are using laser technology to help find the bird. One of these scientists is Woody Turner. He works at NASA's headquarters in Washington, D.C. Finding the woodpecker would be a victory for wildlife, he says.

Image to left: Woody Turner is lending his expertise to the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Credit: NASA

Turner grew up a bird-watcher in Tennessee. He calls himself a "wildlife nut." He says he can't remember a time when he wasn't fascinated by animals. To find the ivory-billed woodpecker, he is working with a team of researchers. The team includes people from NASA, other government agencies and the University of Maryland.

The scientists are using an instrument called the Laser Vegetation Imaging Sensor. It's called LVIS (pronounced Elvis) for short. LVIS was developed by NASA. From the sky, LVIS emits laser light pulses straight down into the forest. The light bounces off of tree branches, leaves and the ground, and reflects back to the instrument. Scientists can convert this data into three-dimensional images.

Related Resources
+ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

+ The Space Place: What is a Laser?

+ Previous Earth Explorers Articles
In June and July 2006, the research team flew an aircraft carrying LVIS. The flight path covered 1.2 million acres of land in Arkansas. The path included the area where the kayaker, Sparling, had spotted the bird in 2004. Scientists at the University of Maryland are now analyzing the laser data. From the data, they are creating a 3-D map of the forest area.

The scientists will compare the map with a well-known study published in 1942. The study gives the researchers a rough idea of the kind of forests the ivory-billed woodpecker likes. They will look for matching areas on the 3-D Arkansas forest map created using LVIS. This information will help narrow down where the bird could still live.

"We have a historical understanding of its habitat," Turner said. "We're trying to use that historical data to guide where one might want to look today."

Turner says that if the ivory-billed woodpecker does exist, LVIS data could help find it. Larry Handley agrees. Handley is a researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey. He helped lead the LVIS data gathering. Handley says that without the instrument people would have to walk all through the forest to search for the woodpecker's habitat. Using the laser sensor makes the task much easier.

A green, red and yellow image of a forest showing reflected laser energy
Image to left: An image produced from the airborne LVIS instrument shows a three-dimensional view of treetops and vegetation in the tropical forest of La Selva, Costa Rica. The color indicates the amount of laser energy reflected from trees and leaves back to a sensor on board the aircraft. Credit: John Weishampel, University of Central Florida. Credit: NASA

Sparling and several others have reported sightings of the woodpecker during the past few years. But the last confirmed sighting of the bird was in northern Louisiana forests in the early 1940s. Those forests have mostly disappeared since then. The trees were cut down for their wood, which was needed for fuel during World War II.

Finding the ivory-billed woodpecker would be exciting. The black-and-white bird is beautiful, Turner says. Males look especially dramatic with a bright red crest on their heads. If it exists, it would be the largest woodpecker in the U.S. and the third largest in the world. It would be remarkable that such a large bird could survive for so many years without being seen.

The bird's existence could also motivate people to protect the remaining forest that it calls home. This preservation would help protect many other animals and plants that live in the same forest.

"If this bird could have hung on and still exists, it would surely say something about the integrity of life," Turner said.

Prachi Patel-Predd, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
Adapted for the grade 5-8 audience by Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies