For 61 years, the largest and most aesthetically awe-inspiring woodpecker of North America, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, was considered to be extinct. Although alleged reports persisted through the decades, it was only seriously thought to be "rediscovered" in February 2004, after a particularly compelling report came to light from the swamps of eastern Arkansas. Following this sighting, major organizations such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funded expensive, large-scale search efforts in attempt to relocate the so-called "Holy Grail" bird. For three years biologists, birders, and other nature enthusiasts eagerly awaited the results of the multimillion-dollar hunt, but despite a number of sketchy eyewitness reports and a highly controversial video, no solid evidence for the existence of the species was provided. As much as birders and nature enthusiasts would like to say otherwise, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is almost certainly extinct. There is no point spending millions of dollars searching for a bird that no longer exists when that money could save other species headed in the same direction.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been headed towards extinction ever since the pilgrim settlers first arrived in the 17th century. Being strictly habitat-specific, the species was never abundant, and it was prized by hunters and bird collectors of natives and settlers alike for its rarity. Additionally, its stunning plumage and ivory-like bill were highly sought after items. The contrasting matte black and spotless, angel-like white on the wings and face, combined with the striking vermilion crest was too much for any hunter to resist. The bony, white bill was unique among American woodpeckers and admired by all who set eyes upon it. Some shot birds were stuffed and mounted and others taken apart for feathers on ladies’ hats and bills for necklaces. The stunning beauty of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker led to its demise.
This species inhabited cypress swamp woodlands of the Southeast United States with an isolated population in Cuba. Early nature enthusiasts such as John James Audubon would wonder at the large
Ivory-billed pairs would excavate for nests in moss-draped Bald Cypress trees. The
deforestation of these woods, along with the poaching from collectors, led to the extinction
of the species. The last confirmed sighting of this woodpecker in the
United States was a female in 1944 in northeastern Louisiana while the last
known Cuban birds were seen until 1987.
|Former Ivory-billed Woodepecker habitat in the Okefenokee Swamp|
However, on February 11, 2004, Gene Sparling identified a large black-and-white woodpecker as an Ivory-billed while kayaking a bayou in the Big Woods area of Arkansas. This report spurred Ivory-billed searchers Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison to travel to this location in an attempt to see the bird. On February 27th, both observers caught a glimpse of "a large black-and-white woodpecker with the characteristic color pattern of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker [flying] across the bayou" (“Seven Sightings”). Despite their attempts, they were not able to relocate or film the bird. This brief glimpse was the only basis they had on their identification.
Despite this, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, launched a $1.6 million project to confirm the existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, based purely on these two reports. Over the course of 3 years, a total of 5 searches were conducted –two in Arkansas, two in Florida, and one in Louisiana– and millions of acres were covered. The search teams included paid field technicians as well as volunteers, which placed continually-running microphones and cameras throughout the swamps to document possible sightings. Despite this, very little evidence was located at the end of the 3 years. All the evidence that was found was highly controversial and in no way indicative of the presence of the Ivory-billed.
Now although the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was the only member of the genus Campephilus found in the United States, there is a superficially similar woodpecker that dwells in the same wooded swampland the Ivory-billed once did. This bird, the Pileated Woodpecker from the genus Dryocopus, is a large woodpecker, slightly smaller than the Ivory-billed, and patterned in black, white, and red. Although the Pileated has more white patterning on the face and more black on the wings and back, a fleeting view of this woodpecker could easily be mistaken for an Ivory-billed. As a result, many alleged reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are actually misidentified Pileateds. There are few reports of Ivory-billed sightings that are actually convincing.
The most promising evidence that supports the presence of this species includes ambiguous audio recordings and a highly pixelated, four-second long video. Ivory-billeds were known for their distinctive calls and double-knocks. The high-pitched, nasal “kent” toots were loud, echoing through the woodlands and the double-knocks, unique to the Campephilus genus, equally so. According to James Tanner in 1942, the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were always "located first by hearing them call" (“Ivory-bill Acoustics”). The purpose of the microphones placed in the search areas was to document calls and double-knocks unique to the Ivory-billed's genus. Yet hundreds of hours of video and audio yielded little. If such a raucous species still existed in these wooded swamps, one would assume it would have been heard in at least one of the surveyed areas. Still, a handful of recordings were designated by Cornell to be suggestive of Ivory-billeds, but they admitted them to be "enigmatic" or difficult to interpret and far from conclusive.
Similarly difficult to interpret was the four-second long video captured by David Luneau at the Bayou de View in April 2004. This particular video, depicting one flying bird and –some have
argued– one perched bird, gained popularity as the most credible
footage for the existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It is low-resolution,
highly-pixelated, and four seconds long, but clearly shows a large woodpecker
being flushed from a cypress tree. Those who support the Ivory-billed's existence claim there is enough detail to identify the bird
as an Ivory-billed. The basis of their identification is mainly the amount of
white located on the dorsal, or upper, side of the wing –one
of the field marks that differentiate it from the similar and ubiquitous
|The Luneau Video, from CLO.|
However, skeptics such as David Allen Sibley, a renowned American birder, note that the video is too low quality to say whether the dorsal or ventral (lower) side of the wing is being seen and that there is no way to eliminate Pileated, which have a large white patch on the ventral side of the wing. The video simply does not contain enough detail to confirm the bird in question as an Ivory-billed. In Sibley’s words, “for something as rare as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, there needs to be… some really solid evidence” (“Sibley on Ivory-billed Woodpecker”). Such evidence would include photos or videos undoubtedly depicting an Ivory-billed.
Because of the ambiguity of the Luneau video, many support eyewitness accounts as the most credible evidence of Ivory-billeds. There were a number of very brief eyewitness sightings of Ivory-billeds during the searches, but Sibley’s view is that “just like eyewitness testimony in court, [they are] inherently unreliable.” He further notes that the mind can play tricks on the eyes and when the eyes want to see something desperately, the mind will “create a memory.” Though he does not state the reporters’ memories were artificial, he implies it is a possibility.
What then causes the driving desire to see the Ivory-billed Woodpecker? Why are so many people spending their time and money to catch a glimpse of this bird? Part of it is likely due to the mystery
surrounding the bird, the “Holy Grail” element. The
idea of a beautiful, large woodpecker hiding in the forest, unseen for decades,
really triggers imagination and awe. The thought of seeing something lost for
so long fills the mind and heart with desire. From a scientific perspective,
the responsibility to locate and recover a critically endangered species cannot
be ignored. We humans made this bird a ghost and the wish to right our wrongs
looms over our conscience.
|1935 photo of a male. Source.|
The bottom line is that data and logic suggest the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extinct. The vast majority of its original habitat has been destroyed. For three years, hundreds of biologists and volunteers searched what was left of the remaining habitat with equivocal evidence to prove the existence of the species. Yet still, organizations such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuse to accept the absence of this species. Although they have run out of funds to continue their efforts, they still list the Ivory-billed Woodpecker as critically endangered, disregarding the fact that no indisputable evidence was found. They spent a total of $14 million between 2004 and 2010 and had laid out a $27 million recovery plan in 2007 before abandoning it due to lack of funds. There is too little evidence to qualify spending such a large amount of money. It would be more worthwhile to use these funds to rescue endangered species such as the Whooping Crane or Black-capped Vireo from the brink of extinction.
As of 2010, a recovery plan costing around $1.4 million has been implemented. What this recovery plan entails is discovering and analyzing existing populations, establishing new populations throughout the historical range of the species, and conserving, monitoring, and managing habitat where the birds may exist. Although this program will certainly help other species reliant on the wooded swamplands of the Southeast, all this money is being spent on a species whose very existence is doubtable. What about those birds whose numbers are plummeting due to cowbird parasitism and habitat loss? Why not put these funds towards programs that set up cowbird traps or conserve and manage oak and juniper riparian habitat in Texas? Such programs would greatly help reduce the threat of extinction looming over the Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extinct. It is time to accept that this glorious bird is gone. It was a riveting few years awaiting the official rediscovery of a lost species, but the results from these years only indicate the “Holy Grail” bird remains lost. We should shift our focus from retrospective to prospective. There are birds that still need saving and, unfortunately, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is no longer among them.
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