Ask Kenn!

Ask Kenn Kaufman: Is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Extinct?

Also this month: Do male Baltimore Oriole have their own distinct songs? And who would play you in a movie version of "Kingbird Highway"?

Who's Kenn? Simply put, Kenn is a national treasure. A renowned birder, author, and conservationist, Kenn Kaufman has spent his life dedicated to observing birds, reading about birds, writing about birds, and sharing the world of birds with others. With all that birdy knowledge in his brain, he also acts as the field editor for Audubon magazine. So, whenever we have a bird question stumping us around the office, we just ask Kenn. And now you can, too! If you have a bird or birding question you'd like Kenn to answer, leave them in the comments below or on Facebook. Maybe next month you'll get the kind of thorough, thoughtful, and even humorous response from Kenn we've grown so fond of over the years. —The Editors             

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Question: Is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker extinct? 

Kenn Kaufman: I have an easy answer for that: yes and no.

And I’m totally serious. Let me explain.

No other North American bird has had such a tantalizing, frustrating history as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Large, spectacular, a symbol of American wilderness, it survived almost into the present era, almost long enough to be helped by the growing environmental movement and endangered-species laws. Almost, but not quite.

Of course, there have been reports of sightings (including well-publicized ones) in recent decades. I’m not here to dispute any particular one of them. I’m willing to believe that every one of those observers genuinely believed they saw an Ivory-bill; and maybe some of them were right. But I keep coming back to this fact: The last universally accepted photos of living Ivory-bills in the U.S. were taken more than 80 years ago, in Louisiana’s Singer tract in 1938.

In the legendary forests of the Singer Tract, the birds were reliably found by multiple observers as late as 1944. But after that . . . no one could pin the species down anywhere. Claimed sightings trailed off gradually, with reports from Florida, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas being made even into this decade. But somehow none could be fully documented.

If the bird still exists, why has proof been so elusive?

Ivory-billed Woodpecker at nest in Louisiana's Singer Tract, 1935. Photo: Arthur A. Allen/Public Domain

 

Some will argue that, “With so many reports, some of them have to be correct.” But I don’t think that applies to Ivory-bills any more than it does to Bigfoot or UFOs or the continuing existence of the Tasmanian tiger. The more unconfirmed reports there are, the more striking it becomes that none of them can be confirmed.

I’ve heard theories that the species went through a rapid evolution in its behavior so that it now avoids humans and evades all attempts at photography. But that doesn’t make sense. In the American tropics, I’ve seen several species that are close relatives, including Pale-billed, Crimson-crested, Magellanic, and Powerful Woodpeckers; they are wary, but they’re not freakishly, supernaturally so. Neither was the Ivory-billed when it was still around. When Roger Tory Peterson went to the Singer Tract with his friend Bayard Christy in 1942, it took them a day and a half to find two Ivory-bills, but then they were able to follow and observe them for almost an hour. In other words, these woodpeckers behaved like normal birds. It’s not plausible that the species would have abruptly evolved into an invisible creature so soon afterward.

Others point out that the Ivory-bill was known to be somewhat nomadic, moving around in response to big outbreaks of certain beetle larvae, and that this could make it harder to pin them down in a single location. This is true. But if some individuals were still hanging on, and moving around the countryside, it would increase the chance that birders would see them. There are a LOT of birders within the Ivory-bill’s historic range—now more than ever before, in fact. Look at an eBird map for Pileated Woodpecker, another large and sometimes wary species, and you’ll see sightings blanketing the southeastern states. There really aren’t any large gaps, except in areas of extensive farmland. The point isn’t that Pileateds are everywhere—the point is that birders are everywhere. It’s not plausible that the bigger, flashier Ivory-bill could slip through these regions unnoticed.

If Roger Peterson had carried one of our modern compact superzoom cameras into the Singer Tract in 1942, he positively could have gotten frame-filling shots. Today, as numbers of birders continue to increase, more and more of us are carrying cameras around. And there are legions of people out in the southern woods—hikers, turkey hunters, kayakers, etc.—who don’t self-identify as birders, but who would whip out their cell phones and take a video if they saw a black-and-white woodpecker the size of a beagle. 

Year after year, we see no clear photos or videos, we hear no convincing, diagnostic recordings. Of course, it’s impossible to prove that the bird is gone—you can’t prove an absence of something—but after a while, you can start to make reasonable assumptions. In an objective analysis, I would say that, yes, I believe the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extinct.

What if I’m wrong, though?

What if someone shows up tomorrow with clear and current photos, with unambiguous video of a living Ivory-bill? I’ll tell you this: I would be thrilled to be proven wrong. I would be overjoyed. I would dance in the streets. I wouldn’t even care about going to see the bird myself; just knowing it still lived would make that the happiest day of my life.

That’s why I answered the question “yes and no.” My head says that the species is extinct, but my heart won’t accept that. In my dreams, the big woodpeckers are still out there, flying along some backwater swamp that the birders haven’t discovered. They’re still hitching their way up massive trunks of ancient trees, still greeting the dawn with strident cries and loud double-rap drumming that echoes through forests where no humans are listening. It doesn’t make sense, but at some level I believe it, and I will for as long as I live.  

Q: I swear I can tell my local male Baltimore Orioles apart just by their songs, which all seem to different. Am I fooling myself?

KK: Not at all; that’s a good observation.

The songs of male Baltimore Orioles are as rich as their colors: a series of throaty, full-toned whistles. The songs may include high notes, low notes, single notes, double notes, in a slow or fast pattern, elements given singly or in repetition. The variations seem endless. Unlike many birds, in which the differences among the songs of individual males are subtle and hard to detect without recording and analysis, the highly distinctive songs of each male Baltimore are obvious to anyone who listens closely. Every May, when migrating orioles arrive near my home in northern Ohio, I take delight in this aspect of the soundscape. Although it would be impossible to prove without having birds individually marked, I believe I have identified certain males returning to the area in more than one year, just on the basis of their unique songs.

Ornithologist Les Beletsky did a detailed study on Baltimore Oriole songs in Michigan. He found that, indeed, most of the males in his study area could be readily separated by voice. All of them had more than one song pattern apiece, but most of those were just slight variations on that individual’s basic song, with only a few elements added or switched, so that the overall song pattern of that male remained recognizable.

Intriguingly, Beletsky found a few cases in which the males on immediately adjacent territories shared some identical songs. This raises some questions: Why? If there were an advantage to having a distinctive song, why would some neighbors pass that up that advantage? On the other hand, if there’s value in having similar songs shared by neighboring males—as happens in many bird species—why do most local male Baltimore Orioles sound so different from each other?

Baltimore Oriole. Photo: Richard Rigterink/Audubon Photography Awards

As far as I know, those questions haven’t been addressed. Presumably these male orioles learn their songs, as with most other songbirds, but we don’t know details of how and when that happens. A study in Nebraska found that songs of first-year males differ slightly from those of adult males, so evidently the orioles continue to develop their songs for a while, rather than learning a fixed set of songs at an early age.

Incidentally, female Baltimore Orioles also sing, although less frequently. Usually their songs are relatively short, but some are as long and complex as those of males. An individual female typically doesn’t share notes used by her mate—she has her own songs. And studies of Bullock’s Oriole, the western replacement for the Baltimore, have suggested that females may sing more often than males of that species, at least early in the nesting season. So in listening to orioles we should avoid assuming that we’re hearing males; we need to look at the singers if we’re going to understand what’s going on.

 Q: In a film based on Kingbird Highway, who would play the part of you?

KK: Well, I appreciate the question, but many readers won’t know what it means. Kingbird Highway is a memoir I wrote. It wasn’t published until 1997, but it describes things that happened almost a quarter-century earlier, in the 1970s. As a rabidly intense young birder, I spent the latter part of my teenage years hitch-hiking around North America looking for new birds. Hitch-hiking was a common and easy way to travel then and it was all I could afford, so I went back and forth across the continent that way, living as cheaply as I could, following the migrations, learning about birds. In 1973, the year I turned 19, I tried to set a new “Big Year” record for North America. The record was only 626 species at that time, so attempting to break it by hitch-hiking wasn’t as outlandish as it would seem now, when serious contenders have to shoot for 800-plus.  

It was a wonderful experience. I wrote a long account of it shortly after the fact, but then put that aside until the mid-1990s, after I had written a couple of other books. Then I pulled out that old manuscript and spent a couple of years rewriting it.

Revised in hindsight, my teenaged adventures turned into a coming-of-age story and a snapshot of the burgeoning birding culture of the 1970s. To my surprise, Houghton Mifflin Company accepted the book and published it. To my further surprise, Kingbird Highway is still in print today, 23 years later. The National Outdoor Book Awards honored it as a “classic’ in 2017.

So the book has been more successful than I could have hoped, but would it work as a film? So far, few movies have focused on birding. The best known undoubtedly is The Big Year, based on a book of the same name written by Mark Obmascik. The book, a true story, was excellent. The film, a highly fictionalized madcap comedy version, was okay. Knowing how badly Hollywood can screw things up, I think many birders were relieved that the film wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

A Birder’s Guide to Everything, released in 2013, isn’t as widely known, but I think it’s a better film. I may be biased because I was a consultant on it, but director and co-screenwriter Rob Meyer had the grace to take the subject matter seriously. There’s plenty of humor, of course, but Meyer’s respect for birding, for his characters, and for the story shines through, making this a gem of a movie.

But back to the original question. If they made a film from my Kingbird Highway, who would act the part of me as a 19-year-old, and the other teenage birders who are prominent in the story? Someone would have to play my friend, the late Ted Parker, who at that time was already developing into one of the most brilliant field ornithologists ever. Maybe that would be a job for an actor who has already played demanding roles, like Dylan Minnette or Chandler Riggs. Someone would have to play Mark Robbins, another sharp field expert in his teens, and wildly expressive. Is Alex Wolff available? And we’d need someone smart and funny, with great comedic timing, to play Joel Greenberg, and someone who conveys quiet intensity to fill the role of Dave Hayward, a couple of great friends from the birding scene of that era.   

And who would play my character? With a question like this, the sky’s the limit, right? I nominate Josh Kiszka, lead singer for the band Greta Van Fleet, winners of the Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2019. Josh Kiszka is 24 now but he looks young for his age, so he could be convincing in the role of a 19-year-old. As far as I know he hasn’t done any film acting yet, but he studied acting in school. He’s been influenced by the writings of Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he often includes themes of nature and peace in lyrics he writes for the band’s blasting hard-rock songs. Seeing his stage presence as a singer, I bet he’s a fine actor also, one who could breathe a lot of meaning into the role of a rebellious teenaged birder trying to find his place in the world.  

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