Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Gone or Just Forgotten?


Ivory-billed Woodpecker pair, Louisiana, 1935. (Arthur Allan, en.wikipedia.org)

Ivory-billed Woodpecker pair, Louisiana, 1935. (Arthur Allan, en.wikipedia.org)

I’ll admit it: I am a first-class Ivory-billed Woodpecker junkie. This beautiful, large bird, if not extinct, has been hiding very well since the 1940s; the last known pair of birds was seen and extensively documented by Arthur Allan and Paul Kellogg in 1935 for their report Recent observations of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. When news broke in 2005 that the great bird may still be alive in southern Arkansas, I listened to all the news with great excitement. I looked at all the web sites for the institutions sponsoring the search for evidence that the bird had not become extinct, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to The University of Windsor. Heck, I even took a look around for them during the few months I lived in Louisiana (albeit from parking areas along the road–but still…).

Me looking for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Louisiana, 2006.

Me looking for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Louisiana, 2006.

When word came in 2010 that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology had ended its slog through the backwoods of Arkansas wetlands, I was saddened. I had hoped beyond hope, like everyone involved in the story, that somebody would get a photo of the creature and end all doubt of its demise. In February 2012, two other teams, after studying all the data from the recent searches and historical sources, came to the conclusion the bird was extinct, only conceding that if Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still exist, there are so few individuals that their existence may never be documented (which leads one to extrapolate the obvious).

The doubters were vindicated, conservationists, birders, and ornithologists who believed were heart-broken, and the citizens of the United States were robbed of an avian constituency whose existence was the bell-weather of well-being for the hardwood forests of the deep south. We messed up. “We” as in the American citizenry and business interests that didn’t get the connections between habitat and the creatures that need certain kinds of places to survive. We didn’t see that coming in the 1930s, back when only 20 or 30 Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still lived, but we learned many hard lessons about trying to control nature in the 1930s, especially the one about sustainable agriculture and the dust bowl. That was a rough lesson, but we were able to learn from it. This lesson–this harsh, hard, sad story–was learned at a very high price.

However, Ron Rohrbaugh, director of Cornell Lab’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project, offers this sliver of hope:

“We have to be sure that the bird is really gone before we give up. As soon as one decides that a species is extinct, there are a lot of consequences,” he said. “That bird can lose protection under the Endangered Species Act, its habitat can be lost, and there’s a change of attitude among scientists and the public to submit new observations because they might be scoffed at.”

Campephilus principalis bairdii (Cuban subspecies), the last official sighting, Cuba, 1948.

Campephilus principalis bairdii (Cuban subspecies), the last official sighting, Cuba, 1948.

And so, with the official search at an end, I peruse a list and map of the last known, credible sightings of the bird and dream about a new adventure to the hardwood forests of the south. As I take a look at the final reports generated by the recent surveys, two things stand out to me that give me hope: the mapped survey areas are small, and the report writers at Cornell do not concede that the great woodpecker is extinct. Other questions loom concerning known sightings in Cuba, but given the current state of relations with them, we may have to wait awhile to find out if the bird still lives in the island nation. And the status of the Imperial Woodpecker (the Ivory-billed’s flamboyant and much-larger cousin) whose home is in the montane forests of Mexico, is also Critically Endangered (possibly extinct)–but, curiously, not officially extinct.

There is still hope.

Watch Cornell Lab’s John Fitzpatrick give an extensive lecture about the renewed search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in 2005.

To read about the Ivory-billed’s cousin the Imperial Woodpecker, and watch a film of the magnificent bird, click here.

To read the original paper submitted to the journal Science that theorized a relict population of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers survived in Arkansas, click here.

An article and photos of an adorable fledgling Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Smithsonian.

To keep up with all the drama and latest news about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, click here.

 

, , , , , ,

28 Responses to Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Gone or Just Forgotten?

  1. cyberthrush January 6, 2013 at 6:02 am #

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece on a magnificent species that, despite appearances, a few of us still hold out hope for. Claims for the Ivory-bill continue to trickle in at a slow rate, even if rarely as detailed or convincing as one would like. The enormity, remoteness, and impenetrability of much of the habitat they could inhabit continue to make any declaration of extinction difficult. I don’t wish to overstate or mislead how much hope remains (paltry little within the birding community)… but on-the-other-hand, IF the bird is confirmed at some point, some of us won’t be the least bit surprised.

    • Julia Cozby January 6, 2013 at 11:22 am #

      Thanks for the nice words. It was really sad writing this. I had hoped for so long, like everyone. Your blog is fun reading and you have a lively bunch over there. I would not be surprised if a good photo finally appeared one day of the bird, either. Until then, we’ll just keep looking.

      “The enormity, remoteness, and impenetrability of much of the habitat they could inhabit continue to make any declaration of extinction difficult.”

      Yes. It is this very fact that gives me hope the bird is still out there, somewhere.

      • Joshua Wells September 4, 2013 at 1:24 am #

        I grew up in the hills of central Louisiana. Growing up, we didn’t have access to a lot of information that we were obviously supposed to. The first time I saw what I could only describe as an ivory-billed was hunting with my father. He called it an Indian hen. So that’s what I accepted. He didn’t seem too surprised, so niether did I. It was a huge, mostly black woodpecker with a really bright bill. Several times in that area growing up I almost shot them thinking they were squirrels.

        A few years ago I frequented the Dewey Wills WMA. When I was on Noland bayou I saw one and thought to myself, I haven’t seen a woodpecker that big since I was young man up in the hills. Later I was looking on the LDWF website and happened across a post that had a picture of one and it said to call the listed number immediately if spotted. I left a message and shot an email to the biologist that had posted it. He replied and told me I didn’t see what I saw. Its really late and I can’t sleep and I happened across a Netflix doc called Ghost Bird. I just finished it and I am kind of aggravated that that everyone thinks those birds are in just one place. I Know they are not extinct and I feel terrible that I have never heard of this big search. Look, I can tell the difference between the pileated and what I saw. Those pileated ones aren’t as big and they have a lot of white on their wings. This one really wasn’t all that white. I wanna say that I know where the tree where this one particular Indian hen lived. Us country folk stayed wandering them woods and I’m pretty sure they can tell you the same thing about that area. They are alive and well at least in the old hardwood bottoms that I used to frequent as a younger man. If you need more info just hit me back up and if u want to go out there I’m sure my sister, who lives in the house I grew up in would let you park in her yard and have a look. They are definitely in that part of kisatchie national forest. You wanna see one, there’s a pretty good chance if you go to one of the two places I mentioned and spend just a little time there you would get what what you’ve been looking for. I can’t believe its accepted by all those damn bird brains that this bird don’t exist anymore. There you have it.

        P.s. I know for a fact that no one has looked in them hills for those birds BC I hunted them for years. I also heard about a reward on that documentary. If you happen to get one for finding it, all I ask is to cut my two little kids off a piece in a college fund or something.

        • Julia Cozby September 4, 2013 at 9:22 am #

          Hey thanks for posting. As you can see from the photo above in the story, the IBWO has quite a bit of white on its back from its wings. This is how it is identified usually, by the “maid’s apron” pattern on its back, and, of course, its white bill and size. The PIWO has no white on its back. Here is a guide to identifying the Ivory-billed from the Pileated: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory/identifying/step3

          I’m not saying a PIWO could not have white color, and I’ve seen pictures of albino PIWOs: http://bcdc-pa.blogspot.com/2011/01/albinisticleucistic-pileated-woodpecker.html

          But, usually, the IBWO will have a large white patch on its back, and the PIWO will not.

        • Mike April 16, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

          i also spend a lot of time in the swamps ..those of of North Florida …I can tell that while the bird MAY be alive, it certainly is not “well”…if it were there would be many more sightings. It may well be that saw a IBW, but it may also be that you saw a female pileated. I don’t know how many people who have hunted all their lives and “live in them their woods” have pointed out a Pileated and called it a IBW….Pileates were also referred to as “Indian Hens” as were many other birds-even game hens and chickens.

    • Julia Cozby January 6, 2013 at 11:37 am #

      By the way, have you seen the documentary Ghost Bird, and what are your thoughts on it? I thought it was very well done. I found Nancy Tanner’s interviews extremely interesting. And I was disgusted by Havard’s 40+ specimen collection.

      • eric hall January 27, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

        Dear Julia, I was just reading your very fine report/ I too am an ivory billed woodpecker junkie, this bird sparked my interest in birds and now i am consumed with not only the ivory billed, but all woodpeckers in general. I have a recording of ghost bird and must say i am livid about the 61 specimens they have in their morgues. I am also pissed about how the individual being interviewed knows damn good and well that museums caused, in conjunction with habitat loss, this marvelous bird’s current predicament and all but refuses to acknowledge it. Hell they have two clutches of eggs stolen from the same pair of birds in the same year and if that is not bad enough, it appears to me, from the information given in the film, that the next shot is of a roost/nest hole in a tree that was cut down and i will bet my next paycheck that the eggs came from that tree. 60 ivory bills could have sustained the population nicely into our time. The science community let all of us down right under our noses. Sad

        • gerald fauske May 20, 2013 at 4:48 pm #

          In reply to those who disparage bird collecting. John James Audubon killed thousands of birds to produce the paintings in his Birds of America. Collecting is the first step in ANY biological endeavour. Future steps are then life history data, phenology and ecology. Look at the tags on those specimens in the research collections- they are all over a century old and long before our modern ecological ethic developed. The fate of the Ivory-bill was seaked by the cutting of the old growth forests of the south, not bird collectors. If you actually READ about Ivory-bills in the writings of early American naturalists (Audubon, Wilson) you will find accounts that Native Americans used their crests as ornaments and local hunters used their hollowed skulls (crests still attached) as lead shot holders. The few birds in scientific collections are a pittance of what was thoughtlessly destroyed by human activities. And the knowledge gained from the documented records of early naturalists (documented by the specimens- not by a diary entry ‘I thought I saw a. . .’) may yet save other species. Incidentally, DNA analysis of the Cuban Ivory bill shows it to be a distinct species.

          I was very hopefull at the first reports of extant Ivory-bills as well, the video brought tears, but, the sighting, a year later of a leucistic Pileated woodpecker (leucistic is such a pattern to strongly resemble an Ivory-bill) from the same area dashed my hopes. On a mixed note, The draining of Mono Lake in California for Agriculture wiped out many endemic species of insects. As a positive note, the Seychelles snout butterfly was rediscovered after having not been seen for more than a century.

    • Wendy April 7, 2013 at 8:48 am #

      This bird is NOT GONE. I saw one last week in our backyard/woods area here in Branson, MO. It made this really weird yak yak sound and I turned to see what it was and it came flying thru, landed on one of our big trees and then took off before I could grab my phone to get a picture. I came in telling my Dad and Husband that I just saw this huge Woody Woodpecker type bird and my Dad was telling me that the woodpeckers don’t get that big. I finally found what I saw and heard this morning online. I also saw others that have seen them in northern Arkansas which is 20 minutes away from here. It’s not extinct! I just hope I can catch a picture next time!

      • Roger Jeffcoat May 28, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

        Good for you Wendy. I’ve seen them also, but not since the mid to late 1960s in Mississippi. My brother and I saw them pretty frequently in the Choctaw Lake Refuge. We told our Biology Prof at MS. State Universitiy that we saw woodpeckers at the refuge that were twice the size as the pileated and he told us that it was the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.

      • Gordon July 14, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

        I would suggest that what you saw Wendy is the fairly common pileated woodpecker. A friend from SE MO told me that she sees them at her bird feeder. The pileated woodpecker is common in LA and we used to have them on our street here in Baton Rouge before the small woodlot was destroyed.

    • michael scheibler July 25, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

      Hi Julia! I have a pair of ivorys here now for 12yrs.I did not know until this past winter when I saw a doc on them that they were supposed to be extinct.I saw 1 again this am but did not have my camera.I have tried to let some folks know about this but so far no response or interest. Let me know if you want to come help me get them on video. Bearman.

      • Julia Cozby July 25, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

        Hi Michael:

        Ivory-billed woodpeckers do not/did not live very far north. That you have them in Ontario is pretty much a non-starter considering their historical range, ideal ecosystem, and tree and grub needs. Please visit this page to see the difference in the Pileated woodpecker’s (what you saw, most likely) range and the IBWO range: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory/identifying/step1

  2. cyberthrush January 6, 2013 at 11:58 am #

    Yes, I’ve seen ‘Ghost Bird;’ basically enjoyed it, but with some mixed feelings. I interviewed the director, Scott Crocker, on my blog almost 2 years ago:

    http://ivorybills.blogspot.com/2011/01/scott-crocker-interview.html

    • Julia Cozby January 6, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

      Mixed feelings–yes. Excellent interview! Thanks for posting the link.

  3. henryo January 16, 2013 at 1:28 pm #

    Thanks also for this piece. I appreciate that it is realistic, though not pessimistic. I’ve been following the ivory-billed since I was about 7 years old (am 50+ now). Likewise, I’m also holding out hope while acknowledging the lack of hard evidence. The remoteness of the habitat gives me some hope too – that and the fact that among those who have reported sighting are some very sober, highly-intelligent individuals, not just overly-eager types. That gives me some hope too.

    Seems like just when I resign myself to assuming the bird is gone – there’s another report – and a credible one that pops up. (My wife calls the IBW the Snuffleupagus of birds.)

    Thanks again.

  4. Dr Darren January 22, 2013 at 9:10 am #

    Thank you Ms.Cozby for taking the time to arrange a concise and logical summary of such an awe- inspiring bird. We need to remember how it’s elusiveness can avoid detection (70 years went by with extinction in the minds of most).

    So many of us agree that the 2005 Arkansas sightings are authentic and not the pileated species. We all thrive on the possibility of seeing an ivory bill on film again. Double knocks and kent calls continue to be reported, and the choctawhatchee area also shows some promise. If ever there was a time for the bird’s chance of survival, I think the time is now, with more protected habitat and suitable wetland than there was 40 years ago.

    Given the chance, nature finds a way.

  5. Julia Cozby January 22, 2013 at 5:33 pm #

    Thanks for the kind words, everyone. I very much appreciate how folks are taking the time to come and read, and leave a few words. If I get out on an Ivory-bill search, I will definitely keep good field notes and write a report for the website.

  6. Lindsey February 26, 2013 at 10:51 am #

    Great piece. I’ve been reading a lot about attracting birds and in particular woodpeckers at Yard Envy, and I’m hoping one day I can attract one of these birds and get some great proof about its existence.

  7. Vincent April 29, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    Hello Julia: Do you know the email of any scientist in Cuba who is looking for the Ivory Billed.? If so , I would like to contact them. Vincent.

  8. jim hoover May 5, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    Dear Julia; As you know, the Mammoth project is hoping that by the year 2020, an actual Wooley Mammoth will be created using DNA and several African or Indian Elephants as hosts, the idea that an Ivorybill can be created by the same process is certainly plausible. The Ivorybill is extinct. This is a fact that has to be excepted, however, the ability to bring this magnificent bird back as well as others that were destroyed by man, ( Dodo, Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet etc..) will give us the kind of second chance we could only dream of. I’m confident that by the year 2030, an extinct species will be back in our environment..

    • Riley Bishop December 19, 2013 at 7:43 pm #

      Stewart Brand (publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog) is funding a project to bring back the carrier pigeon. I saw a documentary on this last year I believe, and the strategy looked promising. I don’t know why this wouldn’t work on this beautiful bird also. Just wondering.

  9. Reggie Greenleaf May 16, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    Dear Julia, I live in King, NC and I have been seeing a larger than average and little different woodpecker that I believe might be the ivory billed woodpecker. I saw a pair of them last year and so far I am only seeing one but it is possible that the female is maybe sitting eggs. Never have been a dedicated bird watcher but this one has me creeping about the wooded areas around the ponds to see if i can get a closer glimpse! Is there anyone that I need to contact for this?

    • Julia Cozby May 16, 2013 at 4:50 pm #

      Reggie: Get a picture! Here is a site that will help in making sure that you are not mistaking a Pileated Woodpecker for an Ivory-billed: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory/identifying/step3 The number one most important mark on an IBWO (for me anyway) is the white segment across the back of the bird–it looks like an apron with two white stripes up the back to the shoulder.

  10. Barbara Kautz September 8, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

    September 8, 2013

    My husband and I saw a pair of these striking birds right here in Columbus, Texas. My husband tried to take a picture of one and it made this weird noise and flew off. Truly amazing.

    • Julia Cozby December 21, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

      Wow! That part of Texas is in their range. This is exciting–I hope your husband can get a photo.

  11. Charlie Carlton March 23, 2014 at 7:18 am #

    I am not a bird-watcher but twice in the past week, I have seen a woodpecker about 10 to 12 inches high that fits the description of the Ivory billed Wood pecker. He matches the description perfectly in my bird book. His main occupation appeared to be poking around on some large long leaf pines in our yard as if he was looking for beetles of insects. He didn’t do any drilling. He also put out a call I have never heard before. If I ever see him again I will attempt to get his picture and share it with everyone. My wife and I live on a large wooded lot in Pinehurst, NC.

Leave a Reply