Student Features

Text Size

The Hunt for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker
Who Are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student wondering how El NiƱo;o 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
Image above: An artist's image of what an ivory-billed woodpecker looks like. Credit: George M. Sutton/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Take a look at the world around you. Look at the grass and trees. Look at the plants and animals. You never know what you'll see.

Gene Sparling was surprised by what he saw. In 2004, he was paddling a small boat on an Arkansas river. The river's banks were covered by forest. Suddenly, he looked up and saw a big, black-and-white bird. This wasn't just any bird, he thought. This one looked like an ivory-billed woodpecker.

But could it really be? Such a bird hadn't been seen for more than 60 years. Many scientists thought there were no more living ivory-billed woodpeckers. The last one had been seen in a forest in Louisiana. Those forests are almost gone. Many of the trees were cut down for their wood, which is burned as fuel.

News of Gene's discovery quickly spread. Since then, several other people have also reported seeing the same kind of bird. Bird experts now say that at least one ivory-billed woodpecker still lives in Arkansas.

Woody Turner
Image above: Woody Turner is helping the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Credit: NASA

NASA scientists are trying to find the bird. One of these scientists is Woody Turner. Woody has always liked to watch birds. He calls himself a "wildlife nut." He can't think of a time when he wasn't interested in animals.

Woody is working with a team of people. They are using a laser that is carried by an aircraft. A laser is an instrument that produces narrow beams of light. The light goes straight down into the forest. It bounces off trees, leaves and the ground, and then back to the laser. The scientists are using the laser light to make a map of the forest where Gene says he saw the bird.

The scientists will compare the map with a study done in 1942. The study gives them an idea of the kind of forest the woodpecker likes. The scientists will look for similar areas on the map they are making. Without the laser, people would have to walk all through the forest to search for where the bird might live. The laser makes the job much easier.

Related Resources
+ Cornell Lab of Ornithology

+ Previous Earth Explorers Articles
"Finding the woodpecker would be great," says Woody. He says, "It's a beautiful bird." Males have a bright red crest on their heads. If the ivory-billed woodpecker does still live, it would be the largest woodpecker in the country. It would be the third largest in the whole world. It would be amazing that such a large bird could survive for so many years and not be seen.

Finding the bird could also make people want to take care of the forest. The fewer trees that are cut down, the more forest there is for the bird to live in. A healthy forest could help protect many other animals and plants, too.

Original story by Prachi Patel-Predd, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
Adapted for K-4 audience by Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies