On September 30, 2021, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service declared the Ivory-billed Woodpecker to be extinct, pending the completion of a 60-day public comment period and a final decision. Too much time has passed since anyone has been able to produce indisputable proof of the bird’s existence, the federal officials apparently reasoned, and it’s time to clear the decks and concentrate on the rare species that definitely do still exist.
For me, this is a bitter pill to swallow—which is probably not surprising. You see, I was one of the people who sighted an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas in 2004 and a coauthor of the paper written for the journal Science the following year: “Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America.” I also wrote The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and have personally searched for the Ivory-billed in Cuba, so I’m clearly in the “believer” camp.
I often go back in my mind to the day my friend Bobby Harrison (a professor at Alabama’s Oakwood University) and I had our Ivory-bill sighting in February 2004. We had already spent nearly five years following up on various rumors of sightings going all the way back to the early 1950s. We checked many of them out, interviewing numerous people and visiting the places where they said they saw Ivory-bills. Some places still looked promising; others had been ruined years earlier. Then a friend forwarded a link to a cryptic description posted on a canoe club listserv by kayaker Gene Sparling, who’d seen a large, stunningly beautiful woodpecker just six days earlier in an Arkansas bayou. And it was only 50 miles from an excellent area Bobby and I had explored just a few months before. We tracked the kayaker down immediately and interviewed him. He was so believable. We immediately made plans to join Gene in Bayou de View, where he’d had his sighting, and spend a week floating the length of the bayou.
Shortly after 1:00 in the afternoon on our second day, it happened. Gene had gone on ahead while Bobby and I drifted slowly downstream, intently focused on the sights and sounds of the swamp. Suddenly we spotted an unusual bird flying up a side slough ahead of us. It was a mix of deep black and brilliant white, flying swiftly and directly and then swinging up to land on the trunk of a tupelo barely 70 feet in front of us. We both mentally went through its field marks—especially the white trailing edge of the bird’s wings, which James Tanner (the renowned ornithologist who had studied the species extensively in the 1930s) said was the best way to identify them. We both simultaneously shouted, “Ivory-bill”—and, of course, spooked the bird, which flew about 50 feet into the swamp, landing on another tupelo trunk and immediately hitching to the other side. Paddling quickly to the edge of the water, we abandoned the canoe, and clamored over branches and fallen logs, tearing our clothes, with cameras dangling around our necks, trying desperately to get a picture of the bird as it flew from tree to tree, always hitching instantly to the other side. We finally lost sight of it.
When Gene returned to see what happened to us, we were babbling and barely coherent, a mixture of shock, giddy joy, and strong emotions. I remember Bobby sat down on a log and wept, saying “I saw an Ivory-bill; I saw an Ivory-bill.”
It was a moment I will never forget. But I often wonder: If other people had made the sighting, instead of Bobby and me, would I have believed them? It’s a tough question. We’ve all been told our entire lives that the Ivory-bill is extinct, so I know it’s difficult to accept it as fact when someone claims to have seen one. This is why I’ve never felt anger toward people who are skeptical of what we saw. I was somewhat agnostic myself about whether the bird still existed until I saw one with my own eyes. But our sighting was not the last. Members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology search team had more than a dozen credible sightings, including seven that were presented in detail in our Science article, which also included an analysis of the videotape that David Luneau, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, took of the bird in Bayou de View. The following year, Geoff Hill, a professor at Auburn University, and his team reported seeing Ivory-billed Woodpeckers on the Choctawhatchee River of Florida. And there have been others. A pig hunter in Florida who made a remarkable sound recording with his iPhone. Videos and still photographs taken by a group of searchers in Louisiana. And two videos (one taken just last year) by Bobby Harrison, which he plans to submit to the USFWS during the comment period.
Of course, none of the evidence presented in the past 77 years about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker's continued existence has been universally accepted by the scientific and birding communities. There are believers and skeptics. People ask: How hard should it be to find and document such a spectacular bird? Looking back over the past century of Ivory-billed Woodpecker research will help answer that question. It’s worth noting that in 1921, exactly 100 years ago, many considered the Ivory-billed Woodpecker already extinct. That very year, the American Museum of Natural History in New York had mounted an extensive search for the species in its former strongholds in Florida and failed to find any signs of them. After that, most ornithologists wrote the Ivory-bill off, with one notable exception—Cornell ornithologist Arthur Allen, who was then one of the editors at Bird-Lore (precursor to Audubon) and wrote numerous articles for the publication.
As Allen was planning the sabbatical he would take in 1924, he had an elusive goal—to rediscover the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I’ve recently been reading his personal correspondence from that period. He intended to pick up where the other searchers had failed in Florida and made many inquiries beforehand to ornithologists and various bird collectors. Few offered any encouragement. In one letter to Allen, Philip Lorent, a collector from Philadelphia who had shot a pair of the birds 38 years earlier, wrote: “This is my thirtieth trip to Florida, and I have only seen one ivory-bill since 1886.” In another letter, J. H. Fleming, a collector from Toronto, Ontario, wrote: “The last Florida ivory-bills I have are from Lake County 1906.”
Allen went anyway, taking his wife, Elsa, and their three young children—ages three, four, and six—who camped out with him in a huge canvas tent during parts of the search. After following up on many clues provided by locals who claimed sightings, most of which turned out to be Pileated Woodpeckers, he finally went out with a local cattle rancher named Morgan Tindall, who they followed on a wild ride in their old Model T Ford, traveling overland through trackless pine barrens as prairie grass and low scrub palmettos whacked the undercarriage of the cars, and finally reached a swamp with towering bald cypress trees. They searched unsuccessfully until well after dark, but the next morning, in heavy fog, they heard the distinctive double-knock rap and nasal tooting kent call of an Ivory-bill coming from the swamp they’d explored the day before. As the fog cleared, they spotted the bird at the top of a pine, and he was soon joined by his mate. The birds then flew off to forage somewhere, and the Allens were unable to locate them again. On the third day, they saw the birds courting and foraging in the nearby pine woods. Despite drizzle and dim light, Allen managed to take a few pictures of the birds. Although they were of poor quality, they were the first pictures ever taken of a living Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Allen was ecstatic and wrote an exuberant dispatch about the discovery for the next issue of Bird-Lore. “I have just enjoyed one of the greatest experiences of my life, for I have found that which they said could not be found—the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Once fairly common in many parts of Florida, it is supposed to have followed the Carolina Parakeet into extinction. Those who know most about Florida birds held out little hope of my ever seeing one alive, but after a month’s search I have found a pair of them and they are very much alive.”
It’s interesting that even then, 97 years ago, finding an Ivory-bill was considered an impossible feat and, of course, it was front-page news, just as it was in 2005 when our team announced the Arkansas sightings. The sad thing is that Allen had planned to document the Ivory-bill pair extensively. He had both still and motion-picture cameras and plenty of film. But he was concerned that because the birds probably hadn’t laid eggs yet, they might abandon the site if he spent too much time there at this stage. So he did the right thing and left them alone for a couple of weeks. When he returned, he was shocked to find that the birds were gone and there were muddy boot prints all over the place. As it turned out, some local taxidermists had heard about the discovery and went out and shot them. One of the men later sold two Ivory-bills believed to be the ones Allen saw to a Florida museum for a whopping (at the time) $175. So the Ivory-billed Woodpecker once again vanished.
Arthur Allen did manage to find Ivory-bills again in 1935, in the famed Singer Tract—an 81,000-acre expanse of virgin southern swamp forest in Louisiana—and documented the birds with still photographs and motion pictures as well as sound-recordings. Sadly, things ended badly for the Ivory-bills there, too, when the Singer Tract was logged in the early 1940s—despite the efforts of President Franklin Roosevelt, the governors of four states, and the Audubon Society to prevent its destruction. (Audubon had funded James Tanner’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker research in the Singer Tract in the late 1930s, which provided the most comprehensive information ever compiled about the species.)
Many of the people who are skeptical about the findings we presented in our 2005 paper in Science ask: If Arthur Allen and Jim Tanner were always able to find Ivory-bills in their study area, why haven’t present-day researchers reliably been able to relocate the birds after they’ve been spotted? It’s a fair question. One major consideration is how difficult they are to find—especially if you’re not near an active nest. Arthur Allen noted in a 1937 article he wrote for The Auk, the venerable journal of American Ornithologists’ Union, that the “failure to find the birds in a given area is no proof that they are not there, for they are not noisy except when disturbed; their voice does not carry nearly as far as that of the Pileated Woodpecker and in the big trees which they normally frequent they are easily overlooked.”
He went on to state: “We camped for five days within three hundred feet of one nest and, except when the birds were about to change places on the nest or were disturbed, seldom heard them. We had great difficulty in following them through the woods to learn their feeding habits even after becoming very familiar with their notes. The senior author at one time stood under a giant oak and caught in his hand chips of bark and wood that an Ivorybill was scaling from a dead branch high in the tree without either one being able to see the other. We had hunted for three days for this particular pair of birds without ever seeing them.”
So, according to Allen, the birds are very quiet, unlike the relatively noisy Pileated Woodpecker. He and his team rarely saw and seldom heard them—even though they were camping only 300 feet from their nest. People listen to the noisy chatter of the recordings Allen’s team made in the 1930s and think this must be how the birds behave all the time. I have serious doubts about that, based on the above quotes by Allen. The birds were probably agitated because the researchers were so close to the nest when they made the recordings.
One question I have is, how easy would the birds have been for Allen and Tanner to find if they had not been near active nests? Presumably, any non-resident Ivory-bill that came randomly flying over them would have just slipped away silently through the forest. It’s really no wonder it can be so difficult to find them again after a brief sighting.
Skeptics also often ask, If the Ivory-bill still exists, why aren’t birders spotting them regularly? To answer that, consider where most birders go to find swamp species. They usually just stroll out on boardwalks at various refuges, parks, and nature centers. Most don’t venture deep into the bayous where we search, where the foliage is dense and you have to pay constant attention to where your canoe is going and watch out for venomous cottonmouths, which sometimes try to climb aboard. You really need to go Ivory-bill searching yourself to appreciate how difficult it is. The swamps and bayous of the South are the realm of hunters, who often spend hours at a time clad in camouflage and hiding in blinds. Some of my best sighting reports have come from people like that. They really know their local wildlife well and are very aware whenever they see something unusual. And they provide excellent descriptions.
Despite all the challenges and the strong opinions of doubters, a handful of us are still working hard to amass proof, searching tirelessly on our own dime, not supported by institutions, government funding, or various conservation organizations. I’m not complaining, but I do think the USFWS should rethink their decision. There have been more Ivory-bill sightings; there is additional evidence, as I mentioned earlier.
There have been more Ivory-bill sightings; there is additional evidence.
Bobby Harrison and I have been in close contact with a number of biologists, including Jim Tate, now retired, who was previously an endangered species specialist at the USFWS and served as science advisor to former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton in the George W. Bush administration. He has seen two videos shot by Bobby and a number of videos and still photographs taken by other researchers. I recently asked him if he believes the Ivory-bill still exists and, if so, whether he would be willing to go on the record with his views. He readily agreed. “I have seen evidence which convinces me that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extant in at least two or maybe three locations,” he told me
I agree with Jim Tate’s assessment. I’m convinced the bird depicted in at least two of the not-previously-released videos is an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The question is, will everyone accept the evidence? Judging from the past, perhaps not. I’m thinking here particularly of ornithologist John Dennis, who claimed to have found Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Big Thicket of East Texas in the 1960s, and even made a sound recording of one of the birds that, to my ear, sounds exactly like an Ivory-bill. Dennis had actually found and photographed Ivory-bills in Cuba in the late 1940s and wrote about it in The Auk, so he definitely knew this species well. And yet his sightings were eventually dismissed. The same has been true of numerous other perfectly believable reports. It’s almost like there’s an unwritten rule that any Ivory-bill seen after the one artist Don Eckelberry saw and sketched in Louisiana in 1944 is not to be believed. So, unless someone manages to take the most stunning, crisp, unbelievably vivid photograph or video imaginable—or better yet, find an active nest that other researchers can view—it may not be universally believed. But enough evidence certainly exists to cast a reasonable doubt on the wisdom of the USFWS’s decision.
And what’s the hurry to declare the bird extinct anyway? Is any harm being done if people have to take a little extra time and thought before clearing vital southern forest habitat to make way for fields of rice and soybeans? These forests are far too important for all the plant and animal species and other life forms that exist within them.
I encourage every conservationist, whether you are an Ivory-bill believer or a skeptic, to make a comment online or by mail about the USFWS decision to remove the Ivory-billed Woodpecker from the Endangered Species List and declare it extinct. Let’s have a full discussion of all the pros and cons before going forward—before we give up all hope on one of the most iconic birds in the history of the American conservation movement.