Column: Extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Published 5:46 am Thursday, June 16, 2005

By Staff
When I was a kid, one of the books I cut my reading teeth on was "Birds of America," published in 1917. It wasn't your typical field guide. This voluminous tome goes into great detail on virtually every bird in North America. I vividly recall one of my favorite birds in this book was the ivory-billed woodpecker. Don't ask me why, for I had no chance of ever seeing one. No chance? Why? Because they were declared extinct about the time I was born.
The ivory-bill resembles a much overgrown pileated woodpecker. Every bit as large as a crow, it was the biggest woodpecker in the U.S. and the third largest woodpecker in the world. It lived in the once vast tracks of old growth, bottomland swamp forests of our southeastern states. The core of its range was the Mississippi Delta country and the cyprus swamps and bayous of Louisiana, Arkansas and Northwest Florida. At one time it ranged to the Carolinas and as far north as southern Indiana and Illinois and extended south to central Florida and even down into Cuba.
We now know these expanses of old growth swamp forests were the key to the ivory-bill's existence. The bulk of the ivory-bill's diet was wood boring beetles. These beetles thrive on dead and dieing, yet still standing, trees. The often flooded timberlands of the Southeast provided that in spades. Also, these woodpeckers were so large each bird needed a lot of room to sustain it. It's thought a single pair needed about six square miles of home range. The millions of acres of bottomland forests filled this bill as well.
Starting in the 1880s lumbermen launched their assault on these forests and by the 1940s they were all but gone. During that 60-year span the ivory-billed woodpecker declined to near extinction as well. Conservation was in its infancy and bewildered scientists just stood and scratched their heads at the demise of the ivory-bill. Beginning in the 1920s, Cornell University ornithologists began studying the last remaining remnants of ivory-billed woodpeckers, documenting their habits, taking photos and recording their calls for posterity.
By the late 1930s it was estimated there were only two dozen ivory-bills left on the planet. By 1943 extensive searches turned up just one lone female. The following year she was found again, still alone. That was the last verified sighting in the U.S. A pair remained in Cuba until 1948, when they, too, disappeared. The ivory-billed woodpecker joined the dodo bird and great auk, as gone as yesterday.
But was it really gone? Optimists continued to search the remote, inhospitable Louisiana bayous and Mississippi Delta swamps. Occasional amateur tape recordings came and went of possible sounds of the distinct double knock ivory-bills make on trees as a communication signal. Every now and then a sighting report would surface but could never be verified. The ivory-bill remained officially extinct.
But then last year on Feb. 11 a birder kayaking in a remote wildlife refuge in eastern Arkansas adamantly claimed he saw one. Two Cornell Laboratory ornithologists that for decades had been searching for ivory-bills raced to the site. Two weeks later, on February 27, they, too, saw the bird. It was an honest to God, for real, ivory-billed woodpecker. The experience was as moving as we could imagine. As one of the men described, "When we finished our notes Bobby sat down on a log, put his face in his hands and began to sob, saying I saw an ivory bill, I saw an ivory-bill."
The Cornell Lab joined forces with The Nature Conservancy to launch an intensive, one year search involving over 50 experts. Using state of the art cameras and high tech recording equipment they put in over 22,000 man hours. So far they have made 15 sightings, including four seconds of proof positive video. Every sighting has been of a single bird so it's not known if this is just one bird or several. Ivory-bills live up to 30 years. Is this a viable population or the real last lone survivor? Only the bird knows. Carpe diem.