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On the subject of ivory-bills, Webster 1913 says: “a large, handsome, North American woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), having a large, sharp, ivory-colored beak. Its general color is glossy black, with white secondaries, and a white dorsal stripe. The male has a large, scarlet crest. It is now rare, and found only in the Gulf States.”

Not too long after Webster 1913 was published, the ivory-billed woodpecker vanished off the face of the Earth. Extensive deforestation, ongoing since 1880, gradually reduced its habitats to tiny zones of virgin forest that would hardly suffice to support woodpecker populations. As its numbers decreased and word spread that it was almost extinct, the ivory-bill began to be actively hunted by collectors, and by 1920 it was somewhat prematurely declared extinct. A single population of the large birds held on through the Thirties, eventually disappearing until 1944, when a single confirmed sighting of a lone female brought back slim hope for the species’ survival. In Cuba as well, an isolated group of a local subspecies held on tenaciously until around 1956, and individual birds were spotted by two reliable witnesses as late as 1987, but their sightings have never been repeated or confirmed.

In 1997, the latest version of Webster said this: “a very large black-and-white woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) of the southeastern U.S. and Cuba that has a showy red crest in the male and is presumed extinct in the U.S.”

This is not, of course, the end of the story.


LAST STAND AT THE SINGER TRACT

The ivory-billed woodpecker is the largest North American woodpecker, and one of the largest in the world. It is also one of the showiest birds you’ll ever see, vividly marked in black and white with tall crests which are bright red in the male of the species. It looks a lot like a pileated woodpecker, but is much larger, and while the pileated’s upper body is almost entirely black, the ivory-bill has sharp white mantle markings and secondary flight feathers. With these distinctive markings, and wingspans over 70 cm., the bird is striking enough to merit the pseudonym “Lord God Bird”. It has been suggested that some Native Americans considered it a magical bird.

At one point in time, ivory-bills were widespread, although never common, throughout the American South. Their numbers had been declining since at least the beginning of the 20th Century, however. These birds make their homes in mature hardwoods, and need large territories. Their ranges grow even more extensive when they are forced to cope with fragmented habitats, as happens when logging operations enter a forest.

Seventy years ago, the last remaining North American population of ivory-bills fought for survival in the Singer Tract, an area of old-growth hardwood forest in northeastern Louisiana. Despite calls for protection of the forests to protect both trees and birds, the Singer Tract continued to be logged rapaciously, and years passed without a single sighting. Finally, in 1944, a lone female specimen was spotted flying over the deforested remnants of the Singer Tract. She was the last ivory-billed woodpecker ever seen in the United States.

Sixty years passed without much hope. From time to time spottings would be reported, but they have never been verified. The ivory-bill is superficially similar to the pileated woodpecker, and most of the supposed ivory-bill sightings are probably pileated instead. Many ornithologists combed the viable habitats for ivory-bills over the years, and never found anything but pileated woodpeckers. Over the course of time, the ivory-bill became something like the birders’ version of Elvis. The more people claimed they saw it, the less attention was paid to the sightings, and it was clear to all that the bird was no more.

But in 2004, the King returned.


BACK FROM THE DEAD

On February 11, 2004, an Arkansas man named Gene Sparling was enjoying a peaceful afternoon kayaking on the bayou in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. His outing was entirely uneventful until he saw “an unusually large, red-crested woodpecker” fly towards him and land not far away from his kayak. Sparling realised that the woodpecker was too large to be a pileated, and mentioned his sighting in an online forum, where it attracted the attention of ornithologists Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison.

Keeping in mind that no ivory-bill sighting since 1944 had been reliably confirmed, the ornithologists interviewed Sparling and eventually became convinced that the report was genuine, Sparling did indeed know what he was talking about, and there was a chance, however slim, that the ivory-bill had survived without detection for the last six decades. A week later Sparling guided them to the scene of the crime, where after a few days of searching they all saw a large woodpecker fly very close to their boat, close enough to confirm that it was larger than a typical pileated woodpecker and that its markings were unlike pileated markings.

Still hesitant to go public with their find, Gallagher and Harrison were confident enough to keep looking for the bird and call in a few more colleagues. Over the next year, the team searched 41 square kilometers of the woods around the initial sighting, documenting five more ivory-bill encounters. Unfortunately, they could never find any inhabited nests or mated pairs, but they did manage to shoot one short video that proved crucial for proving that the birds they had found were not pileated woodpeckers.

This video, which has now been shown extensively around the Web, is blurry, pixelated, and only shows the bird for four seconds, because the bird leaves its perch and flies into the trees as soon as it detects the ornithologists’ canoe approaching. However, video deinterlacing and magnification cleared the picture up considerably, and revealed several distinct features – including the bird’s size, plumage and wing patterns in flight and at rest – that prove its identity beyond a doubt. It is an ivory-billed woodpecker with a wingspan of at least 71 cm, which is right around the largest wingspan recorded for a pileated woodpecker, but well within the documented range for ivory-bills.

It is still unknown if this ivory-bill is a lone survivor or a member of a community. In at least three of the team’s encounters with the Cache River woodpeckers, the red crests of males were evident. In the other sightings, the crests were not seen clearly, so there is no evidence as yet that female ivory-bills exist. It is possible that all of these encounters are with the same bird. It may seem self-evident that where there is one bird, there must be more, but this is not really a sure thing.

Still, we can at least hope that more ivory-bills exist somewhere in the 220,000-hectare Big Woods, and that the bird or birds seen by the team in 2004 will meet and mate with them, if they have not already done so. The reporting ornithologists point out that the Big Woods provide more than adequate shelter for ivory-bills, with large tracts of partially mature forest (40% of the trees over 60 years of age) and the remainder maturing rapidly. It is the opposite of the situation faced by the ivory-bills of the Singer Tract in 1944 – rather than shrinking, the potential habitat for these birds is continuously growing as the protected areas are enlarged and the trees mature. Even if there are only a few breeding pairs left, conditions are right for them to make a comeback. Nobody doubts that the ivory-bills are still in extreme danger, but there is still a chance that this amazing bird will live to reclaim its throne as one of the rarest and most beautiful denizens of America’s forests.


  • Primary source:
    Fitzpatrick, et al, “Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Campephelus principalis) Persists in Continental North America”; Science, published online 28 April 2005; 10.1126/Science.1114103
    (available at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/rapidpdf/1114103v1.pdf )
  • The BBC Online article covering this discovery is a pretty lame fluff-piece, but you can at least see the famous video in it:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4493825.stm

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