Possible Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Footage Breathes Life Into Extinction Debate

After searching for hundreds of hours and analyzing new evidence, a scientist has little doubt that the bird still exists. But does the jury agree?

It’s been 73 years since the last clear portrait of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker came out of Louisiana—and according to Michael Collins, it could be decades more until another similar image is captured.

In a study published yesterday in the open-access journal Heliyon, Collins, an intrepid birder and a mathematician and acoustics researcher with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, argues that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still persist in the forested swamps of Louisiana and Florida. He also believes that, despite the lack of any clear photographic evidence of the birds’ existence, the sheer possibility that they could be out there means their habitat deserves better protection from clear-cutting, dredging, and climate change. 

The study outlines personal observations and video footage collected by Collins when he was stationed at the Stennis Space Center between 2005 and 2013. Working in his free time, with no outside funding, he kayaked solo through the swamps of the Pearl River along the Mississippi-Louisiana border with a camera fixed to his paddle. He climbed cypress trees at dawn, and haunted places where the woodpeckers were most likely to be lurking.

After 500 visits and 1,500 total hours of observation, Collins produced two videos from the Pearl River in 2006 and 2008, and a third from 2007 in the Choctawhatchee River swamp in Florida. The clips fall short of conclusive: Most of the excerpts show distant blurs that only vaguely resemble birds. But in his paper, Collins describes the birds in the videos as large woodpeckers with rapid wingbeats, bright white marks on their wings, and exceedingly cautious behavior—traits shared by the storied Ivory-bill.

A comparison of the flight pattern of a large woodpecker filmed by Collins in 2006 near the Pearl River (left) with a Pileated Woodpecker at the Pearl River (right). Video: Michael Collins

In the best video (above), a large woodpecker-shaped avian clings to a forked tree limb, then leaps to an adjacent branch. Collins collected the limb after a storm blew it down. He then borrowed a Pileated Woodpecker specimen and mounted it in the same position to compare body size, shape, and posture. (Adult Ivory-bills can run one to three inches bigger than Pileateds.)

Avian artist Julie Zickefoose, who reviewed the video, states in the study that the bird in question does have a remarkably “rared-back pose," a "long but fluffy and squared-off crest," and an "extremely long, erect head and neck.” That silhouette is more typical of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker than a Pileated.

Collins also says he heard the film subjects make numerous kent calls, which is yet another Ivory-bill clue. Furthermore, he reports 10 other sightings, and has photographs of extra-large tree cavities with stripped-away bark. All this evidence considered, Collins says he has zero doubts that the birds are still hanging around the swamps.

But when he wanted to go public with this conclusion, he had few takers. The journal PNAS rejected his study in 2009, citing inadequate evidence to back up his “extraordinary claims.” The skepticism comes with good reason: The Ivory-bill debate has been plagued with decades of fake photos, failed searches (see here for our in-depth feature story on the most recent one in Cuba), and quarrels among experts and scientists. After the rejection, Collins then devoted his time to further analyzing and supporting his evidence. He admits proving the Ivory-bill's existence is an uphill battle, but not one that should be set aside just yet.

“People in conservation are afraid to touch this issue," Collins says."It’s become politicized, and hasn’t been about science for years. It’s an iconic species, living in an area of the southeastern United States that’s been neglected in terms of conservation, and could play a key role in turning the tide of conservation in this part of the country.”

Geoff Hill, an ornithologist at Auburn University who helped guide Collins around the Choctawhatchee River for the 2007 video, published his own set of Ivory-bill observations in 2006. He says that although Collins’ videos and rigorous analysis are intriguing, they’re unlikely to change very many minds. 

Confirmed Ivory-bill footage taken by Arthur Allen and colleagues in Louisiana's Singer Tract in 1935 (left) examined next to video taken by Collins near Pearl River (right). Video: Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Michael Collins

Jerome Jackson, an ornithologist at Florida Gulf Coast University and author of a book and numerous articles on the Ivory-billed woodpecker, doesn't agree with Collins' assertion that even the possibility of the species is enough to promote conservation. Jackson was one of the most vocal critics on a 2006 paper in Science by Cornell Lab of Ornithology director John Fitzpatrick (who also consulted on Collins’ study), and his belief then and now is that rushing in with overly optimistic ideas about where the bird exists could actually weaken conservation efforts around it.

The Heliyon paper, he writes in an email, makes a good argument for preserving swampland. But he doesn’t think the entire effort should be underpinned by a bird that’s very likely extinct.

“There are many other species that would benefit from protection of vast acreages of bottomland hardwood forest,” Jackson writes. “Such protection can be justified by considering the other values of the forest, whether or not the Ivory-bill exists."

The bottom line, Jackson adds, is there’s no way to know what Collins saw from that video. Which raises an important question: What exactly would be considered enough evidence to prove the bird's existence?

Fitzpatrick, an Ivory-bill chaser himself, says that only an image worthy of the cover of Time magazine—or even Audubon, for that matter—will suffice. There are more than enough capable bird photographers with good equipment out in the field that “a clear, unambiguous photo of an Ivory-bill is what everyone expects for full, conclusive proof.” Fitzpatrick asserts that he is by no means ready to declare the Ivory-bill extinct.

Living Bird editor-in-chief Tim Gallagher, who led the search for the Ivory-bill in Cuba last year, agrees that the bar is high. 

"I know of several excellent sightings that have taken place in the last three or four years,” Gallagher writes via email. "I sympathize with Collins, and I believe he probably did see Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Unfortunately, it requires much more than a blurry video and some sound recordings to convince people that these birds are present and that their habitat should be saved."

Collins, for his part, argues that waiting for a flawless picture of a notoriously skittish bird is a waste of valuable time.

Given that the species’ habitat is remote and scarce, and that surviving woodpeckers are likely fearful of humans, snapping the Ivory-bill is going to take a very long time, Collins says. That doesn’t mean the debate should be over; it just might need to move away from an image-only definition of evidence. Collins notes that particle physicists didn’t give up on finding neutrinos: They had to invent a completely new tool to do it.

“This is simply a bird that’s extremely difficult to find,” Collins says. “It’s pretty clear that if you compare this with a more typical species, the expected waiting time [to get a clear photograph] is millions of times greater.”  

Still, it seems that until such an image is captured, the Ivory-bill debate will live on. And those seeking the truth will have to keep hunting.