Perhaps no other bird has sparked as much debate among North American birders as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. For some, this regal species that once reigned over the hardwood bottomland of America's south is surely extinct, pushed out by logging, development, and hunting in the early 20th century. Others, however, adamantly believe a handful of the large, red-crested birds could still be out there, living in remote patches of the south only to occasionally reveal themselves in blurry videos, pixelated images, and ambiguous audio recordings of their distinctive kent calls and double-knock tapping.
As of today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has made its position known: The agency has proposed officially removing the Ivory-billed Woodpecker from the endangered species list and declaring the iconic woodpecker extinct. The "Lord God Bird" is among 23 species being proposed for removal. Of them, 11 are birds, including the Bachman's Warbler, a tiny, drab inhabitant of southeastern forests last spotted in 1988, and the Bridled White-eye, a small, olive, warbler-like bird once found on Guam.
Hawaii alone is set to see eight avian species delisted: the Kauai Akialoa, Kauai Nukupuu, Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, Large Kauai Thrush, Maui ākepa, Maui Nukupuʻu, Molokai Creeper, and Po`ouli. Habitat removal, introduced species like rats, climate change, and avian malaria have all wreaked havoc on the islands' bird populations.
"These species extinctions highlight the importance of the ESA and efforts to conserve species before declines become irreversible,"the agency said in the announcement. But before any of the species permanently lose their endangered status, the proposed rule will first be submitted to the Federal Register on September 29th. From there, a public comment period will take place through November 29, after which a final decision will be made.
Of all the species listed in today's announcement, the Ivory-bill is sure to make the biggest waves throughout the ornithological world. Though the news isn't a total shock. The service launched a five-year review of the species status in May of 2018 that it ended up concluding early in June 2019. The review's recommendation of delisting the species was first included in the agency's official plans for 2020.
As the FWS notice details, the last generally agreed upon confirmed sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was in 1944 on the Singer Tract in northeast Louisiana. That sighting was made by artist Don Eckelberry, who was on assignment for the National Audubon Society and was able to sketch a lone female. Historically, Cuba hosted a population of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker subspecies, but the last confirmed sighting of that bird was in 1986.
"Despite decades of extensive survey efforts throughout the southeastern U.S. and Cuba, it has not been relocated," the FWS statement reads. "Primary threats leading to its extinction were the loss of mature forest habitat and collection."
While the Singer Tract account is considered the last accepted North American sighting, there has been no shortage of reports in the almost 80 years since. Many of them were easily debunked or highly controversial, but others have been more credible, with just-compelling-enough evidence to spur hope and extensive follow-up searches. The most famous of these possibly valid sightings came from David Luneau, who captured video of a large woodpecker while kayaking down the Bayou De View in eastern Arkansas in April 2004.
The video has been a source of contention among ornithologists. Still, it and other reports from northern Florida were enough for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to launch a sprawling, collaborative search from 2006-2010 across eight southeastern states covering 523,000 acres. That survey resulted in enough evidence to help keep the bird listed as endangered. In one video produced by the effort, a bird resembling a large woodpecker and sporting what some believe are the Ivory-bill's telltale outer white wing coverts can be seen darting from the back of a tree off into the distance.
John Fitzpatrick, the former director of Cornell's Lab of Ornithology who helped organize the search, thinks the Ivory-billed Woodpecker could still exist and disagrees with the plans to declare the bird extinct. "My opinion is it's premature, especially when included with so many other species for which the evidence of truly being extinct is overwhelming," Fitzpatrick, now retired and a director emeritus at Cornell, says. "I and many others continue to respect the evidence in eastern Arkansas."
But other experts, including David Sibley, never found the Luneau video convincing and still don't. Jerome Jackson, an ornithologist who specializes in studying the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and wrote the book In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, co-authored a paper that disputed the validity of the Luneau sighting. "I don’t think the Luneau video was an Ivory-billed at all," Jackson says. "I think it was a Pileated Woodpecker."
As for today's announcement, Jackson isn't critical of the FWS's plan to declare the bird extinct and calls it "simply a bureaucratic decision" that was to be expected. "It doesn’t mean that it really is," he says."But the odds are really highly in favor of it being extinct. And the reason why I say that is there simply isn’t enough contiguous habitat to support Ivory-billeds left."
Indeed, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers require huge tracts of land with large swaths of old-growth forest to survive. The loss of that land and the beetle-housing trees the birds depend on is seen as the biggest contibuting factor to their demise. But by keeping the bird's status in place, Fitzpatrick says, we are at least conserving the land that it needs while continuing the search. And in the meantime, other species that also depend on this habitat will benefit.