The Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), a very large member of the woodpecker family, Picidae, is officially listed as an endangered species, but by the end of the 20th century had widely been considered extinct.
Reports of at least one male bird in Arkansas in 2004 and 2005 were suggested in April 2005 by a team led by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (Fitzpatrick et al., 2005). If confirmed, this would make the Ivory-billed Woodpecker a lazarus species, a species that is rediscovered alive after being considered extinct for some time.
In June 2006, a $10,000 reward was offered for information leading to the discovery of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker nest, roost or feeding site.
In late September 2006, a team of ornithologists from Auburn University and the University of Windsor published a paper detailing suggestive evidence for the existence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers along the Choctawhatchee River in northwest Florida (Hill et al., 2006).
Despite the initial reports from both Arkansas or Florida, conclusive evidence for the existence of a population of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, in the form of unambiguous photographs/videos, specimens, or DNA from feathers, has not been forthcoming. Nonetheless, land acquisition and restoration efforts are currently underway to protect the possible survival of this woodpecker.
The contrast in plumage of the male (above) and female (below).
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is the second largest woodpecker in the world, and the largest in the United States. The largest of all woodpeckers is the closely related Imperial Woodpecker (C. imperialis) of western Mexico, another rare species which is very likely to be extinct. The Ivory-billed has a total length of 20 inches (50 centimeters) and weighs 20 ounces (570 grams). It has a 30 inch (75 centimeters) wing span. The bird is shiny blue-black with white markings on its neck and back and extensive white on the trailing edge of both the upper- and underwing. The underwing is also white along its forward edge, resulting in a black line running along the middle of the underwing, expanding to more extensive black at the wingtip. In adults, the bill is ivory in color, chalky white in juveniles. Ivory-bills have a prominent crest, although in juveniles it is ragged. The crest is black in juveniles and females. In males, the crest is black along its forward edge, changing abruptly to red on the side and rear. The chin of an ivory-bill is black. When perched with the wings folded, ivory-bills of both sexes present a large patch of white on the lower back, roughly triangular in shape. These characteristics distinguish it from the smaller and darker-billed Pileated Woodpecker. The Pileated normally is brownish-black, smoky, or slaty black in color. It also has a white neck stripe but the back is normally black. Pileated juveniles and adults have a red crest and a white chin. Pileateds normally have no white on the trailing edges of their wings and when perched normally show only a small patch of white on each side of the body near the edge of the wing. However, Pileated Woodpeckers, apparently aberrant individuals, have been reported with white trailing edges on the wings, forming a white triangular patch on the lower back when perched. Like all woodpeckers, the ivory-bill has a strong and straight bill and a long, mobile, hard-tipped, barbed tongue. Among North American woodpeckers, the ivory-bill is unique in having a bill whose tip is quite flattened laterally, shaped much like a beveled wood chisel. The bird's drum is a single or double rap. Four fairly distinct calls are reported in the literature and 2 were recorded in the 1930s. The most common, a kent or hant, sounds like a toy trumpet often repeated in series. When the bird is disturbed, the pitch of the kent note rises, it is repeated more frequently, and is often doubled. A conversational call, also recorded, is given between individuals at the nest, and has been described as Kent-Kent-Kent.
Habitat and diet
Ivory-billeds are known to prefer thick hardwood swamps and pine forests, with large amounts of dead and decaying trees. Prior to the American Civil War, much of the Southern United States was covered in vast tracts of primeval hardwood forests that were suitable as habitat for the bird. At that time, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker ranged from east Texas to North Carolina, and from southern Illinois to Florida and Cuba. After the Civil War, the timber industry deforested millions of acres in the South, leaving only sparse isolated tracts of suitable habitat.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker feeds mainly on the larvae of wood-boring beetles, but also eats seeds, fruit, and other insects. The bird uses its enormous white bill to hammer, wedge, and peel the bark off dead trees to find the insects. Surprisingly, these birds need about 25 kmē (10 square miles) per pair so they can find enough food to feed their young and themselves. Hence, they occur at low densities even in healthy populations. The more common Pileated Woodpecker may compete for food with this species.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is thought to pair for life. Pairs are also known to travel together. These paired birds will mate every year between January and May. Before they have their young, they excavate a nest in a dead or partially dead tree about 8"?15 m up from the ground. Usually two to five eggs are laid and incubated for 3 to 5 weeks. Both parents sit on the eggs and are involved in taking care of the chicks, with the male taking sole responsibility at night. They feed the chicks for months. About five weeks after the young are born, they learn to fly. Even after the young are able to fly, the parents will continue feeding them for another two months. The family will eventually split up in late fall or early winter.
Heavy logging activity exacerbated by hunting by collectors devastated the population of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the late 1800s. It was generally considered extinct in the 1920s, when a pair turned up in Florida, only to be shot for specimens.
By 1938, an estimated 20 individuals remained in the wild, some 6-8 of which were located in the old-growth forest called the Singer Tract in Louisiana, where logging rights were held by the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. The company brushed aside pleas from four Southern governors and the National Audubon Society that the tract be publicly purchased and set aside as a reserve, and clearcut the forest. By 1944 the last known Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a female, was gone from the cut-over tract (Smithsonian p 98).
Reported sightings: 1940s to 1990s
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was listed as an endangered species on March 11, 1967, though the only evidence of its existence at the time was a possible recording of its call made in East Texas. The last reported sighting of the Cuban subspecies (C. p. bairdii), after a long interval, was in 1987; it has not been seen since. The Cuban Exile journalist and author John O'Donnell-Rosales who was born in the area of Cuba, with the last confirmed sightings, reported sightings near the Alabama Coastal Delta, in 1994 but these were never properly investigated by State wildlife officials.
Two tantalizing photos were given to LSU museum director George Lowery in 1971 by a source who wished to remain anonymous but who came forward in 2005 as outdoorsman Fielding Lewis.
The photos, taken with a cheap Instamatic camera, show what appears to be a male Ivory-billed perched on the trunks of two different trees in the Atchafalaya Basin of Louisiana. The bird's distinctive bill is not visible in either photo and the photos - taken from a distance - are very grainy. Lowery presented the photos at the 1971 annual meeting of the American Ornithologists Union. Skeptics dismissed the photos as frauds, believing that the bird seen is either a misidentifed Pileated, or - seeing that the bird is in roughly the same position in both photos - a mounted specimen.
There were numerous unconfirmed reports of the bird, but many ornithologists believed the species had been wiped out completely, and it was assessed as "extinct" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in 1994. This assessment was later altered to "critically endangered" on the grounds that the species could still be extant.
2002 Pearl River expedition
In 1999, there was an unconfirmed sighting of a pair of birds in the Pearl River region of southeast Louisiana by a forestry student, David Kulivan, which some experts considered very compelling. In a 2002 expedition in the forests, swamps, and bayous of the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area by LSU, biologists spent 30 days searching for the bird.
In the afternoon of January 27, 2002, after ten days, a rapping sound similar to the "double knock" made by the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was heard and recorded. The exact source of the sound was not found because of the swampy terrain, but signs of active woodpeckers were found (i.e., scaled bark and large tree cavities). The expedition was inconclusive, however, as it was determined that the recorded sounds were likely gunshot echoes rather than the distinctive double rap of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Since 2002, most of the attention in the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has turned away from the Pearl River region, although several unconfirmed sightings were reported there in February 2006, see video clips.
2004/2005 Arkansas reports
A group of seventeen authors headed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reported the discovery of at least one Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a male, in the Big Woods area of Arkansas in 2004 and 2005, publishing the report in the journal Science on April 28, 2005 (Fitzpatrick et al., 2005).
One of the authors, who was kayaking in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, Monroe County, Arkansas, on February 11, 2004, reported on a website the sighting of an unusually large red-crested woodpecker. This report led to more intensive searches in the area and in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, undertaken in secrecy for fear of a stampede of bird-watchers, by experienced observers over the next fourteen months. About fifteen sightings occurred during the period (seven of which were considered compelling enough to mention in the scientific article), possibly all of the same bird. One of these more reliable sightings was on February 27, 2004. Bobby Harrison of Huntsville, Alabama and Tim Gallagher of Ithaca, New York, both reported seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker at the same time. The secrecy of the search permitted The Nature Conservancy and Cornell University to quietly buy up Ivory-billed habitat to add to the 120,000 acres (490 kmē) of the Big Woods protected by the Conservancy.
A large woodpecker was videotaped on April 25, 2004; its size, wing pattern at rest and in flight, and white plumage on its back between the wings were cited as evidence that the woodpecker sighted was an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. That same video included an earlier image of what was suggested to be such a bird perching on a Water Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica).
The report also notes that drumming consistent with that of Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been heard in the region. It describes the potential for a thinly distributed population in the area, though no birds have been located away from the primary site. A current concern is that many bird enthusiasts will rush to the area in an attempt to catch a glimpse of this rare bird. Ornithologists and veteran birders tell of adult woodpeckers abandoning their nests and young out of alarm at the encroachments of overenthusiastic birdwatchers.
In the fall of 2006, researchers developed and installed an "autonomous observatory" using robotic video cameras with image processing software that detects and records high resolution video of birds in flight inside a high probability zone in the Cache River area. As of August 2007, hundreds of birds have been recorded, including pileated woodpeckers, but not the Ivory-billed woodpecker.
In June 2005, ornithologists at Yale University, the University of Kansas, and Florida Gulf Coast University submitted a scientific article skeptical of the initial reports of rediscovery.
We were very skeptical of the first published reports, and... data were not sufficient to support this startling conclusion.
In August 2005, despite the arguments for the existence of at least one Ivory-billed Woodpecker, questions about the evidence remained. For example, there were no findings of dead Ivory-bills nor were any nests found. Cornell could not say with absolute certainty that the sounds recorded in Arkansas were made by Ivory-bills.
Some skeptics, including Richard Prum, believe the video could have been of a Pileated Woodpecker.
An article by Dina Cappiello in the Houston Chronicle published December 18th, 2005 presented Richard Prum's position as follows:
Prum, intrigued by some of the recordings taken in Arkansas' Big Woods, said the evidence thus far is refutable.
On page 13 of the American Birding Association publication "Winging It" (November/December 2005), it was announced:
The ABA Checklist Committee has not changed the status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker from Code 6 (EXTINCT) to another level that would reflect a small surviving population. The Committee is waiting for unequivocal proof that the species still exists.
In a commentary published in The Auk in January 2006, Jerome Jackson expressed his skepticism of the Ivory-bill evidence in no uncertain terms:
Prum, Robbins, Brett Benz, and I remain steadfast in our belief that the bird in the Luneau video is a normal Pileated Woodpecker. Others have independently come to the same conclusion, and publication of independent analyses may be forthcoming [...] For scientists to label sight reports and questionable photographs as 'proof' of such an extraordinary record is delving into 'faith-based' ornithology and doing a disservice to science." (Jackson, 2006a),
sparking off a side debate coming close to personal accusation (Fitzpatrick et al., 2006b,c; Jackson, 2006b).
In March 2006, a research team headed by David A. Sibley of Concord, MA published findings in the journal Science, saying that the videotape was most likely of a Pileated Woodpecker, with mistakes having been made in the interpretation of its posture. They conclude that it lacks certain features of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and has others consistent with the Pileated (Sibley at al., 2006) The original Cornell research team stood by their original findings in a response article in the same issue of Science, stating:
Claims that the bird in the Luneau video is a normal pileated woodpecker are based on misrepresentations of a pileated's underwing pattern, interpretation of video artifacts as plumage pattern, and inaccurate models of takeoff and flight behavior. These claims are contradicted by experimental data and fail to explain evidence in the Luneau video of white dorsal plumage, distinctive flight behavior, and a perched woodpecker with white upper parts." (Fitzpatrick et al., 2006a)
In May 2006, it was announced that a large search effort led by the Cornell team had been suspended for the season with only a handful of unconfirmed, fleeting sightings to report. Apparently conservation officers plan to allow the public back into areas of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge that had been restricted upon the initial reported sightings.
2005/2006 Florida reports
In September 2006, new claims that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker may not be extinct were released by a research group consisting of members from Auburn University in Alabama and the University of Windsor in Ontario. Dr. Geoff Hill of Auburn University and Dr. Daniel Mennill of the University of Windsor have revealed a collection of evidence that the birds may still exist in the cypress swamps of the Florida panhandle. Their evidence includes 14 sightings of the birds and 300 recordings of sounds that can be attributed to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but also includes tell-tale foraging signs and appropriately sized tree nest cavities (Hill et al., 2006). This evidence remains inconclusive as it excludes the photographic or DNA evidence that many experts cite as necessary before the presence of the species can be confirmed. While Dr. Hill and Dr. Mennill are themselves convinced of the bird's existence in Florida, they are quick to acknowledge that they have not yet conclusively proven the species' existence. The research team is currently undertaking a more complete survey of the Choctawhatchee River, in hopes of obtaining photographic evidence of the bird's existence. In April, 2007 the Florida Ornithological Society Records Committee voted unanimously not to accept the 2005-06 reports of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker on the Choctawhatchee River.
In economically struggling east Arkansas, the speculation of a possible return of the Ivory-bill has served as a great source of economic exploitation, with tourist spending up 30%, primarily in and around the city of Brinkley, Arkansas. A woodpecker "festival", a woodpecker hairstyle (a sort of mohawk with red, white, and black dye), and an "Ivory-bill Burger" have been featured locally. The lack of confirmed proof of the bird's existence, and the extremely small chance of actually seeing the bird even if it does exist (especially since the exact locations of the reported sightings are still guarded), have prevented the explosion in tourism some locals had anticipated.
Brinkley hosted "The Call of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Celebration" in February 2006. The celebration included exhibits, birding tours, educational presentations, a vendor market, and more.
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The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is sometimes referred to as the Grail Bird, the Lord God Bird, or the Good God Bird, all based on the exclamations of awed onlookers.
Other nicknames for the bird are King of the Woodpeckers and Elvis in Feathers.
Interviews with residents of Brinkley, Arkansas, heard on National Public Radio following the reported rediscovery were shared with musician Sufjan Stevens, who used the material to write a song titled "The Lord God Bird" (MP3).
Arkansas has made license plates featuring a graphic of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker was featured in an episode of ABC's Grey's Anatomy on November 1, 2007, entitled "Kung-Fu Fighting". The possibility of seeing the rare bird one day inspired a passionate bird watcher to make it through awake open-heart surgery.
In Woody Woodpecker's cartoon episode "Dumb Like a Fox", a museum offers 25 dollars for a Campephilus principalis, Woody Woodpecker being a specimen of this species himself.