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Electronic Imaging & Signal Processing

Virtual woodpecker aids hunt for elusive bird

A reported sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker -- previously thought to be extinct -- in 2004 has led to a massive effort to document its existence. So far, only some grainy footage has been captured, not conclusive evidence due to the possible confusion between the markings of the ivory-billed and the pileated woodpecker.

Cornell University staff members and students created a virtual ivory bill to model the flight of the elusive bird, for comparison with the brief film of the bird in flight. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the researchers started with a simple virtual skeleton to give Cornell ornithologists a preview of what the simulators might be able to create. They incorporated images from the only preserved ivory-billed woodpecker body in the world, using 400 CAT scans. In a two-year project, they created a highly detailed computer-generated bird.

The team used a high-speed digital photography of a pileated woodpecker in flight, then fit the digital woodpecker to the movements of the pileated. The Cornell team now says it appears the white wing patches on the computerized woodpecker flashed at the same time as the patches on the bird in the video, lending support to the ivory-billed woodpecker's existence.

Several other high-tech efforts have supported the search. In 2006, NASA used the Laser Vegetation Imaging Sensor (LVIS) to map approximately 5,000 square kilometers at the White River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas, including sites where recent possible sightings of the bird occurred. The LVIS generated data of the 3D vegetation structure and underlying terrain was used as a means to guide local, ground-based search efforts.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Nature Conservancy
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service