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Twitchers in a flap over elusive pecker

'Very rare' bird actually extinct all along?

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It was with great fanfare last summer that the US Fish and Wildlife service trumpeted the rediscovery of an apparently 'extinct' species: the ivory-billed woodpecker. Until a Cornell team reported the sighting in a Arkansas swamp, the iconic bird had not been spotted for more than 60 years.

The revelation was the hottest news to hit the bird watching community in years, and the administration moved quickly to appoint a dedicated 'recovery team'. They threw $10m at the tenuous grip on existence the species happily seemed to retain.

But now, almost a year on with no further sightings, others are casting aspersions on the original Science identification.

Florida ornithologist and woodpecker expert Jerome Jackson has published criticisms in the journal The Auk, saying the blurry video the Cornell researchers took is inconclusive. He says it could just as easily show the related pileated woodpecker.

Despite the doubts, President Bush recently requested a further $2.1m to bolster the hunt.

If confirmed, woodpecker could be a tourism bonanza for the local economy, a fact not lost on the organisers of the recent "Call of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Celebration" in the small town of Brinkley. The February event offered "speakers and vendors with items you might be interested in such as T-shirts, field glasses, books, paintings, posters, prints and more."

Sadly for the Arkansas Chambers of Commerce, it seems this 'Lazarus' bird may have been an ex-pecker all along. A pessimistic Jackson told New Scientist: "They might not be visible on two or three trips or 50 hours of observation, but now we're talking about thousands of hours by the Cornell people alone. In my opinion, we should have had something by now."

Judge the video for yourself here (.mov file). ®

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