The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker: Dead or Alive?


Because of my desire to contribute SOMETHING, and my strange fascination with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, I’m posting an old paper that I have reworked some, discussing whether the bird is really extinct or not. This was first written a year or so ago, so there are a few new things that have happened since…none of them good…but this should give a person who is otherwise unfamiliar with the subject a decent overview. Despite how the article reads, I’m still undecided…cautiously hopeful lets say…

The Ivory-billed woodpecker is a bird that many Americans may have heard about, as a cautionary tale of sorts. Conservation efforts by many in the early 1900s, were countered by hunters, trying to kill specimens for museums and private collections, and loggers systematically eliminating their habitat. The last known Ivory-billed woodpecker died in 1944. Since then, conservationists have used the Ivory-billed woodpecker as a battle cry of sorts. “Be careful, or the same thing will happen to the California Condor, or the red wolf, or the West Indian Manatee.” It is a tactic that seems to work, much of the time. There is however, a group of people who believe there may a chance that a few remaining members of this species have managed to hold on. If this is true, and a few of these birds have managed to survive through the years, in hiding, fighting against the steadily increasing pressure of human encroachment, it really says something about the constitution and spirit of these tough, resilient birds. I believe that there is a small, hopefully breeding, population of Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers still left in the south-eastern corner of the country.
The Ivory-billed woodpecker was once considered to be the largest woodpecker in North America. Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers describes the Ivory-billed Woodpecker as a glossy blue-black color. They have a narrow white stripe on either side of their neck, starting below the eyes and going down to the folded secondaries. Their secondaries, underwing coverts, and most of their primaries are white as well. They also have yellow eyes and an ivory colored beak. (Bent, 10) The only difference between male and female of the species, is the bright red crest of the males, and the black crest of the females. Since not all of these things are noticeable from a distance, or when the bird is in flight, certain field markers are used to identify an Ivory-bill. In flight the two most visible field-markers are the long wings with white trailing underfeathers, and the straight, direct, duck-like flight pattern. When perched, the crest, and the pattern of white on the birds back, are good indicators. As Pileated woodpeckers are commonly misidentified as Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, it’s important to make sure that an Ivory-billed Woodpecker is being identified properly, by using unmistakable markers.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers eat primarily bugs that live in dead or dying trees. According to Geoffrey Hill, in Ivorybill Hunters, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers traditionally live in old-growth swamps where there were dead trees that held their main food source. (12) They have been known to eat everything from fruit to poison ivy. The historical rage of the Ivory-billed woodpecker went from Texas south to Florida. Bent says “The species was found throughout the Gulf States as far north as North Carolina and up the Mississippi Valley as far as southern Ohio and Illinois”(5) Their current suspected range has shrunken mainly to very small parts of Arkansas and Florida. The range shrinkage is due primarily to the steady destruction of appropriate habitat. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers generally require a swamp-like habitat. They like large, mature trees, in a wet marshy environment. The reason for this is that, as mentioned above, the mature trees they seem to have a preference for, provide them with a regular food source. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers mate for life, and both birds help to take care of the babies. They nest in holes in trees, and generally lay 2-3 eggs a breeding cycle. It is quite common however for only one baby to hatch, and more than one child surviving to adulthood is seen as fairly rare.
A few hundred years ago, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was common throughout the southeastern swamplands. By the early 1900s, due to hunting and habitat destruction, they were nearly extinct. Collectors killed them and stuffed them. They put them in museums, as well as private collections. According to Phillip Hoose, One well-known collector named William Brewster, put a bounty on them and collected over 60 specimens in a relatively short period of time. (Hoose, 42-43) When the feathered hat craze, known as the Plume War, caught on around 1887, people hunted Ivory-billed Woodpeckers even more, along with many other endangered birds. It was out of this 50 year period of time that conservation groups like the Audubon society came. This group in particular became a very important force, down the road, in trying to save the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The slaughter of the Ivory-billed woodpecker during the Plume War escalated greatly. According to The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, “There may not have been uniformed soldiers in the Plume War, but plenty of blood was shed and millions of lives were lost.”(Hoose, 48)
The Ivory-bill population continued to decline and ornithologists from Cornell University finally started to worry about the remaining birds. In 1937 a trip was put together where an Ivory-bill expert named James Tanner would travel around for three years and try to find breeding populations of the woodpeckers. He would concentrate primarily on the Singer tract. The Singer tract was suspected to be the single largest Ivory-bill population left in the country. Tanner set up camp there, and with the help of a game warden names J.J. Kunh, he began an in-depth study of the birds. The vast majority of the pictures of these birds still in existence today are from Tanner and Kuhn’s study. Towards the end of this study, they found out that the Singer company sold most of their large tract of land to two large logging companies. They also gave a drilling company permission to drill directly in the middle of prime Ivory-bill habitat. The population of these birds continued to decline as more and more land was cut down. At this point the Singer tract had the last confirmed Ivory-billed woodpeckers, but the United States was in the middle of a war, and the government would do nothing to save either the woodpeckers or the land. In fact they did quite the opposite. The government decided they wanted this wood so badly that they actually brought in German prisoners of war to help cut down the forest.
The last confirmed Ivory-billed woodpecker was a female that lived in a lone tree which was somehow spared from destruction, on what used to be the Singer tract. An artist, Don Eckleberry, from the Audubon Society came every day for weeks to sit with and draw what they believed was the last of a species. He brought a pair of local children with him one day, telling them that it was probably their last chance to see a bird that probably nobody would ever see again. One of the boys, when asked as an adult, said about the evening “I’ve never been quite the same since. I’ll never forget Mr. Eckleberry, or that bird, or that day, as long as I live” (Hoose, 132) After Mr. Eckleberry was finally forced to leave, a local boy, Gene Laird, went by the tree every day to check in on the bird, sometimes sitting with her for a while. Then, according to Gene, “One day I went by there and the ash had blown down in a wind-storm. She was gone. And I never saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker again.” (Hoose, 133)
Many ornithologists believe that the Ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct despite eyewitness sightings by experienced birders and scientists, and audio recordings to the contrary. The most popular rationalization is that people are just seeing a large pileated woodpecker, and getting excited or confused. As Tim Gallagher points out in The Grail Bird, “If people were randomly mistaking pileated woodpeckers for Ivorybills, then the distribution of sightings would be more even than it is.” (121-122) The most consistently credible sightings reported have all been from the Atchafalaya Basin, the Pearl River, and the Sabine river. Of the modern research trips where there have been eyewitness sightings, there have been two with extremely noteworthy findings. One was a trip made in the summer of ’05, by Geoffrey Hill and two research assistants, on the Choctawhatchee River in Florida. They had numerous sightings between the three of them, at one point even seeing a pair flying together. They also regularly heard the double-knocks and calls that are typical of Ivory-bills (Hill, 23-25) The second trip worth mention was made by Tim Gallagher and his crew, in the area of Bayou de View in Alabama. Several more research trips into this area were sponsored by the Cornell Ornithology Department, after Gallagher’s original trip. On both trips there were numerous eyewitness sightings, but this paper is going to primarily discuss the Bayou de View search, as it came up with more hard evidence, including a video. It is the hard evidence that skeptics are so willing to dismiss even though they are able to see it with their own eyes.
Tim Gallagher, an ornithologist with Cornell University, followed up on a lead that landed him in the middle of the Arkansas swamps, looking for the Ivory-bill. He, his research assistant, and the local man who brought them out there all saw the bird during that trip. He brought the news back to the head of the Cornell Ornithology department, John Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick listened to his story, and then made a decision to start an in-depth search for the woodpecker, saying “locating and studying the Ivory-bills in eastern Arkansas will now be the number one priority at the lab.” (Gallagher, 52) The Cornell lab set up a camp in Bayou de View, and sent researchers in, in waves. There were a total of 15 eyewitness sightings in a one year period, all by experienced ornithologists. Of these 15, 7 sightings were considered clear and detailed, with enough field markers to be irrefutable. Most of these sightings were made as the bird was in flight. They were from varying distances, some were seen with binoculars, some without, some saw males, some saw females, the only thing they had in common was that they knew immediately what they were witnessing. There were also numerous double-knocks heard, by several different researchers. The most interesting piece of evidence from this trip is the several second video of a large black and white bird that was caught by the camera mounted on a researcher’s, David Leneau’s, boat. This footage is referred to as the Leneau video. This bird appears to be an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The people who were present all agree that it was the bird they were looking for, but others who viewed the footage don’t agree.
One outspoken critic of the Cornell video footage is David Sibley, an ornithologist, and nature artist who publishes a bird identification guide. He believes that the video is of a misidentified Pileated woodpecker. He has written a paper on why the bird in the video couldn’t have been an ivory-bill. His thought is that the ornithological community should stop wasting money on a bird that doesn’t exist, and use it on endangered species that we know still exist, and that we still have a chance to save. He thinks that by spending money on this bird, it’s taking away from other species that could benefit from the money and research. Fitzpatrick et. al. wrote an article addressing the rediscovery if camphilus principalis in Arkansas, and had it published in Science, a well-known scientific publication. Sibley wrote a harsh critique of this article and had it published in Science as well. He argues that the video of the perched bird with a large amount of white on its back, isn’t that of an ivory-billed woodpecker, because when they mount a stuffed specimen on a tree, you still see mostly black. He also argues that the size on the video isn’t consistent with an Ivory-bill perched, as the angle it would have to be standing at would be nearly impossible, but with a pileated woodpecker’s wing while flying around the tree. At a different point in the video when the bird is definitely in flight, Fitzpatrick points out its white trailing edges, a trait typical of an ivory-bill. Sibley argues that because the bird was filmed mostly from behind at an angle, the white they were seeing was probably the twisting front underwing, called the ventral surface, of a pileated woodpecker. Sibley also argued that some frames of the video appeared to show a black trailing edge to some of the wing, again characteristic of a pileated, not an ivory-bill which should have a visible white trailing edge throughout the video. Lastly Sibley states that the blurry white patch seen on the birds back in several frames could be attributed to several things, not just the white striping pattern on an Ivory-bills back. In fact, he himself attributes it to a reflection, a problem with the film, of the head of a pileated woodpecker. (Sibley)
After Sibley published his article in Science, Fitzpatrick and his colleagues published a rebuttal. This basically shot down most off Sibley’s arguments. They stated that:

Sibley’s interpretations were based on misrepresentation 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)

The article goes on to discuss the scientific methods that they used to check against that bird being a pileated woodpecker. They stated that they had analyzed 56 different videos of Pileated woodpeckers taking off and flying. Not only that, they built and used models to check their theories. They mention that the Pileated’s underwing pattern that Sibley uses, is incorrect. Sibley implied that Pileated woodpeckers have a thin strip of black along their trailing feathers, and most of the wing is white. This is incorrect. The majority of the Pileated woodpeckers wing is black, so there would be no reason to see such a pervasive amount of white in a Pileated in flight. In short, they believe that Sibley was basing his data on misrepresentations of both Pileated Woodpeckers, and Ivory-bills. They also point out that Sibley dismisses the many things in the video that are characteristic of an Ivory-bill, and couldn’t possibly be related to a Pileated. Sibley also dismisses all of the experimental demonstrations that show the video to be extremely consistent with an Ivory-bill in flight. (Fitzpatrick)
One other group of people who seems to disagree with Sibley’s video analysis is the U.S. government. In April of 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put together and released a recovery plan for the bird. In this recovery plan, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service says:
After weighing the various positions, the FWS accepts the interpretation of Fitzpatrick et al. FWS concludes that other published interpretations by Sibley et al. (2006), and by extension Collinson (2007), are based on misinterpretations of video artifacts as plumage, and novel interpretations of typical bird flight. (CITE)

This is important, because this support from the Fish and Wildlife service comes after a few years without an eyewitness view by an expert. They obviously feel that the proof given was substantial enough to warrant giving the species some protection, to help with their recovery.
There are several other questions that are raised by dissenters as well, regarding the existence of the Ivory-billed woodpecker. Critics say that these Ivory-bills that are seen don’t seem to stay for very long in the same place, if they did there would be many more sightings than there are. It has been pointed out that older books on this bird, say that it is nonmigratory, staying within a few miles of the spot in which they were born. (Bent, 3) This doesn’t seem to be true any longer. They seem to go where the food source is. They feed on bugs found in dead trees, without the dead trees, they would starve. This explains the moving around that they seem to do. Other ornithologists claim that the Ivory-bill calls, known as “kents” are made by blue jays or Flickers. These birds learn the calls of other birds, like Mockingbirds. (Gallagher, 128) This theory is possible, but the question then becomes how did they learn it? They have life spans of only a few years, Ivory-bills can live up to 30. If they learned the call, they had to learn it from an Ivory-bill, which means that they are still out there.
Traditionally, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers have always been seen as large, brightly colored and loud birds. Skeptics point out that if that is the case, why aren’t there more sightings? There may be two reasons for that. First of all, all the loud outgoing birds were shot. It is possible that the surviving birds are descended from the birds that tended to be more quiet, shy and reclusive, and therefore managed to survive. Essentially, the behavior of these birds may have evolved over the past hundred years or so, and managed to keep a small population safe from being slaughtered. The second reason for the lack of reported sightings is the birding community’s treatment of people who report such sightings. It has happened time and time again. Well respected ornithologists have reported sightings of the Ivory-bill, and they have been ridiculed. More than one of these men found the backlash virtually career ending. It is possible that people try to explain it away, or just decide not to mention it, in order to save their credibility within the scientific community.
In conclusion, I believe that there is a small population of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers managing to hang on in the swamps of both Arkansas and Florida. It is possible that there may be other small communities still in existence, but more research is needed. There will always be skeptics, regardless of the proof. Even if someone were to live-capture an entire family of the birds, there would always be someone saying that it was fake, that the markings had been painted on, or that they were a trick of light. The existence of these birds has been proven. Now it is up to the various conservation, research groups, and schools like the Audubon Society, Cornell Ornithology Lab, and Auburn University, to help raise public awareness and continue to study their habitats in an effort to save them. Hopefully one day in the future people will be able to walk through the woods, see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and not have to worry about someone calling them a liar.

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3 thoughts on “The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker: Dead or Alive?

  1. Leucistic Pileateds were found and clearly photographed in detail in Bayou De View during the same general time frame of the Luneau Video. No Ivory Bills were clearly photographed in detail in Bayour De View during the same general time frame of the Luneau Video.

    Clear undisputed photographic evidence for the existence to this day of Leucistic Pileated Woodpeckers is available. Clear undisputed photographic evidence for the existence of Ivory Bills has not been produced for seventy years. No feathers, dead ivory bills, or DNA from Ivory bills has been found in 70 years. I wish it were otherwise, but Occam’s razor says the bird in the Luneau video is a Leucistic Pileated.

  2. So, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that the Leneau boat video was actually a video of a Leucistic Pileated woodpecker? I would have to respectfully disagree that the bird in the video is a Pileated Woodpecker, aberrant or otherwise. I also must disagree with the implication that the actual sightings were misidentification.
    I don’t think that anybody would argue that Leucistic Pileateds DON’T exist. I’ve seen some very good pictures of them, with varying amounts of white, and as their existence is well-documented, thats a possibility that professional ornithologists would be aware of. Actually, Cornell ornithologists documented at least two such birds, with differing amounts of white, in a nearby part of Arkansas. The birds, despite the difference in color, both behaved and sounded like normal Pileated Woodpeckers. In fact, documentation collected (by Cornell, if memory serves) in the Pileated Woodpeckers range, seems to indicate that the majority of Pileated Woodpeckers that have Leucistic traits are, most commonly, almost entirely white. This is inconsistent with the bird in the Leneau video. Also,the range of the Pileated is much smaller than the range of the Ivory-Bill. Generally, the Leucistic Pileated woodpecker is fairly easy to come across within its range, but no bird with any level of partial albinism that would allow it to pass for an Ivory-Bill, has ever been found in that (or possibly any) area. If that bird had been a Leucistic Pileated, it is extremely likely that researchers would have come across it again, either before, or after the video, possibly both. Putting aside the color, the frequency of the wing-beats,the birds flight pattern,and the estimated size of the bird in the video preclude a Pileated Woodpecker of any kind. As far as the video goes, I concede that there may a remote possibility that it could be a Leucistic Pileated, but I have watched the video repeatedly, and my personal opinion is that, while it may or may not be an Ivory-Bill, it does not appear to be a Leucistic Pileated.
    As far as the eyewitness sightings go, suggesting that so many trained ornithologists confused Ivory-Bills with Pileateds seems to border on offensive to the people who logged sightings. Whether or not the Leneau Boat video showed Leucistic Pilieated Woodpeckers or Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers, or for that matter, something else entirely different, there were multiple first-hand sighting, by experts. Even an amateur birder should be able to tell the difference between an Ivory-Bill and a Pileated. I feel confidant that I could. Career ornithologists from Cornell (Or Auburn, in the case of Bayou De View) should definitely be able to tell the difference.
    I also mean no disrespect, but I must disagree on the Occam’s razor reference also. In assuming that the bird is a Leucistic Pileated, there are far more smaller assumptions that need to be made first. You are assuming that all of the expert analysis by people that were out there and involved in the expedition was wrong. You are assuming that all of the sightings by experts were misidentification. You are assuming that while never clearly photographed or seen, there is a Leucustic Pileated Woodpecker with coloring that makes it appear strikingly similar to an Ivory-Bill. Despite the fact that, based on the range of the Pileated Woodpecker, this bird should have been spotted again. You are also assuming that for whatever reason, this bird has a flight pattern, and wing-beats different to those of a Pileated Woodpecker. The sighting is more likely to be consistent with that of an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. The issue of the feathers or dead specimens are fairly easily explained by the fact that the majority of these sightings were in the swamp or in similar terrain. They could very easily be eaten, if not, than decay of the bodies in this climate and terrain is very rapid.
    My personal opinion is that this there are definitely a few left, but that there probably isn’t enough in any given place to form a breeding population. I find that extremely sad, because regardless of our differing opinions on the subject, they both have the same final outcome. If not currently extinct, the species likely will be soon. I really hope that I’m wrong, but sadly I doubt it.

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