Does the ivory-bill woodpecker still exist?

September 21, 2011

Photograph of field guide J.J. Kuhn by James T. Tanner, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University, March, 1938. Photo taken at the Singer Tract swamp forest, Louisiana. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife

No recent evidence of bird existing in Florida

From the Desk of FWC –  By Stan Kirkland, FWC

In the spring of 2005, news swept the United States and much of the world that the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, had been found in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Arkansas.

The news was electrifying to birders and conservation groups.

Gene Sparling, an amateur ornithologist from Hot Springs, Ark., reported seeing a single adult male ivory-bill in the Cache River refuge on Feb. 11, 2004. Other ornithologists soon joined the search for proof that ivory-bills still existed and they seemed to make their case when David Luneau of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock made a short, blurry videotape of a reported ivory-bill taking flight from a tree.

Some of the groups that reviewed the evidence and supported the claim that the woodpecker, with its 3-foot wingspan and signature whitish-ivory bill, still existed included the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some wanted to believe that the gigantic woodpecker, known by such names as white-back, pearly bill and Lord God bird, still flew safely somewhere. The name Lord God bird came from people seeing the bird and exclaiming, “Lord God, what a bird.”

Had the short video clip been clear, that would have been one thing. Ornithologists across the country weighed in and many believed the searchers had spotted the smaller pileated woodpecker, which is common across the Southeast.

To understand the discussion as to whether ivory-bills still existed, you have to understand something of the bird itself and the history of our country.

Adult ivory-bills measured 19 to 21 inches, were bluish-black in color and had white markings on the neck, sides and back, which resembled a white saddle. Both male and female birds sported a prominent top crest, which was red in males and black in females.

Early settlers and frontiersmen reported that male Native American Indians, particularly those who were in authority – chieftains – often wore the bills of ivory-billed woodpeckers on their belts or as part of breast plates. The author of  “In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker,” Jerome A Jackson, points to the archaeological record where the heads and bills of both ivory-billed and pileated woodpeckers were much in demand by Indians, sometimes far outside their range. He mentions the recent discovery of an Indian burial in Colorado with ivory-bills on the deceased, more than 1,000 miles from recognized ivory-bill habitat.

Jackson and other authors accurately point to the fact that Indians armed with bows and arrows weren’t the death knell of the species. What did ivory-bills in was loss of habitat, specifically the logging of old-growth forests across their range.

Ivory-bills were primarily found in the Southeast’s virgin hardwood-forest river bottoms and swampy lowland forests, and were well documented in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, east Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma. With their powerful chisel-like bill, they depended on lots of dying and dead trees such as sweet gums, ash and longleaf pine, where they removed the bark in search of insects and insect larvae. Ornithologists say ivory-bills needed immense areas to feed – perhaps 10-12 square miles of old-growth forest per pair.

As one old growth forest after another fell to an expanding country’s insatiable demand for wood in the late 1800s, ivory-bills began to vanish. In fact, ornithologists say the species was extremely rare after 1900. Nowhere was this more evident than in Florida.

Whether an ivory-bill was actually spotted in the Cache River NWR is still a matter of debate. If even a single bird was actually spotted, it would have literally required quite a number of breeding pairs of birds over the past 100 or so years for birds to still exist today.

Following the Cache River announcement, river-bottom searches were initiated in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas. Here in the Sunshine State, staff of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission assisted but found no evidence of the birds. Similar results followed in other states.

I think most of us want to believe there’s some place across the country that hasn’t been searched where the granddaddy of North American woodpeckers still exists. It would be incredible if that comes to pass.

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