Even now in one of my birding classes I occasionally will get asked, “Do you believe the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is still alive?” Or maybe, “That big woodpecker, do you think they really found one?”
What I do believe is that some experienced birders certainly believed at one time that they had re-found this species. The IBW had last been seen alive in the 1940s in Louisiana. The last sighting in Cuba was 1987. It’s almost a decade since that heady time back in 2004 when Cornell Ornithology Lab and several researchers declared that they were optimistic that the Ivory-billed had been found alive in an Arkansas marsh. The exact ten-year anniversary of the first celebrated modern sighting will be February 11, 2014.
Five years of intense searching in the field followed that 2004 public announcement which reverberated across the birding world. There followed some even sketchier reports that the IBW may have been found in Florida. Those reports, too, failed to provide anything like convincing evidence.
Cornell’s website today declares that field teams searched over 500,000 acres in 8 southern states over five years. The Cornell Lab and its supporters stand ready to follow up any credible reports that may still be heard.
The last proven sighting of IBW were in a private forest tract in Louisiana in 1944. During World War II that forest was cut down so the wood could be used “for the war effort.” There was no Endagered Species Act at that time and no way for friends of the IBW to stop the deforestation and probably the coup de grace for the woodpecker in the U.S.
At one time the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was widespread in the lowland hardwood forests of the southeastern U.S. That is a habitat type that is almost completely gone from America, along with the largest woodpecker that once lived on this continent.
In the first half of the 18th Century, English naturalist Mark Catesby collected a specimen and drew the first full-color image of the IBW. He called it “The Largest White-billed Wood-pecker.”
He went on to write, “The bills of these birds are much valued by the Canada Indians, who make coronets of them for their prices and great warriors, by fixing them around a wreath, with their points outwards. The northern Indians having none of these birds in the cold country, purchase them of the southern people at the price of two, and sometimes three buck-skins a bill.
“These birds subsist chiefly on ants, wood-worms, and other insects, which they hew out of rotten trees; nature having so formed their bills, that in an hour or two of time they will raise a bushel of chips; for which the Spanish call them carpenteros.”
Perhaps the next known colored image of the IBW was by John Abbot, an English naturalist who settled in Georgia in 1776. Abbot collected natural history specimens and made drawings, all of which he sold to wealthy collectors in England and America.
Writing in the early 19th Century, Alexander Wilson described the IBW thus: “This majestic and formidable species, in strength and magnitude, stands at the head of the whole class of Woodpeckers, hitherto discovered. He may be called the king or chief of his tribe…
“Wherever he frequents, he leaves enormous pine trees with cartloads of bark lying around their roots, and chips of the trunk itself, in such quantities as to suggest the idea that half a dozen axe-men had been at work there for the whole morning….
“The head and bill of this bird is in great esteem among the southern Indians, who wear them by way of amulet or charm, as well as ornament….”
Wilson shot and slightly wounded one IBW. That evening he carried the bird into his room at a hotel where he was spending the night. While Wilson ate dinner the bird—tied to the bed by a rope around its leg—proceeded to hack apart the hotel room furniture and carve up the window frame.
Three decades later Audubon wrote of the IBW: “The flight of this bird is graceful in the extreme, although seldom prolonged to more than a few hundred yards at a time…The transit from one tree to another, even should the distance be as much as a hundred yards, is performed by a single sweep, and the bird appears as if merely swinging itself from the top of one tree to that of the other, forming an elegantly curved line.”
When Thomas Nuttall wrote his account in his Ornithology, second edition (1840), he noted the bird had become secretive.
“More vagrant, retiring, and independent than the rest of his family, he is never found in the precincts of cultivated tracts; the scene of his dominion is the lonely forest amidst trees of the greatest magnitude…the high rattling clarion and the rapid strokes of this princely Woodpecker are often the only sounds which vibrate through, and communicate an air of life to this dismal wilds. His stridulous, interrupted call, and loud, industrious blows, my often be heard for more than half a mile….”
By the time Roger Tory Peterson published his first field guide in 1934 the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had become “extremely rare.” He says the bird is confined to the Gulf Coast. When Europeans first arrived the IBW had been found as far north as Virginia and the Ohio River.
In 1936 a Cornell expedition included ornithologist George Miksch Sutton. Here’s his description of finding an IBW nesting pair in Louisiana: “There we sat in the wild swamp, miles and miles from any highway, with two ivory-billed woodpeckers so close to us that we could see their eyes, their long toes, even their slightly curved claws with our binoculars.”
Also on that expedition was graduate student James Tanner who returned to study the birds in this virgin forest from 1937-39. It was his PhD research and was underwritten by the National Audubon Society. At that time he estimated there were about two dozen IBWs in that forest. Tanner also checked numerous other reports of UBW sightings around the south but never succeeded in finding another population. He worked hard to try to save the last forest with the last IBW but there was no legal standing in those days to conserve a species in the face of the profit motive. The forest was owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company. They sold the timber rights to Chicago Mill and Lumber. Logging proceeded during the war. In 1944 artist Don Eckelberry spent two weeks sketching a single female IBW surviving in an island of yet-uncut forest. That is the last confirmed sighting of the doomed species.
Today we wait. Perhaps some intrepid birder will get the definitive video of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker high in a tree along a flooded bayou in the American south. Or perhaps the Ivory-billed Woodpecker will continue to be a phantom, haunting our collective yearnings for what used to be, floating through time next to the ghosts of the Passenger Pigeon and Great Auk.
CLICK HERE FOR SUMMARY OF CORNELL ORNITHOLOGY LAB’S STUDY OF IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER BEFORE WORLD WAR II.
CLICK HERE FOR SUMMARY OF THE SIGHTINGS AND SOUNDS THAT LED CORNELLTO ANNOUNCE THE FINDING OF THE IVORY-BILLED ALIVE IN ARKANSAS.
–Harry Fuller, PIB field guide