The Tragically Human End of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

The Tragically Human End of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

At the end of September, an ornithological bombshell 54 years in the making finally dropped: The ivory-billed woodpecker, a symbol of southern biodiversity and the largest woodpecker in the U.S., was to be removed from the endangered species list. The reason? Extinction.

The decision — technically a proposal, as it currently stands — was handed down by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the ivory-bill was one of 23 species named in the delisting. All but one other bird on the chopping block were island species whose populations were wiped out by introduced predators like cats, rats, and snakes, or disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes. It makes the woodpecker’s plight all the more significant; from the end of the Civil War through the Great Depression, the animal’s range was reduced from across the sweeping forests of the Southeast to just a few tracts of land across a couple of states. And now, perhaps, none.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s September announcement marked the beginning of a 60-day public comment period on the endangered species delistings, during which members of the public are encouraged to submit any evidence to the contrary. The public comment period ended on November 29.

Some ornithologists and members of the public say the announcement was either premature — or long overdue. There hasn’t been a confirmed woodpecker sighting since 1944, though reports of its vocalisations, sightings, and even fuzzy video footage have popped up in the ensuing decades. Some remain committed to the idea that the bird is not yet lost, while others feel it is simply a harbinger of things to come for other species if they are not protected from human development and unchecked climate change.

Debate about the bird’s existence reached a fever pitch in the mid-2000s, but it has remained at a simmer ever since.“There is just not this much heat around any other species that’s on the edge of extinction,” said Hannah Hunter, a geographer at Queen’s University in Canada. “Why is that? I think part of it is to do with the people who have been involved in this kind of in-between-ness of the ivory-bill. … These are some of the most credible people in the field.”

The ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) was — or is — a 20-inch-long (51-centimeter-long) bird that looked much like the extant pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), but the former was larger, and, perhaps obviously, had an off-white bill. The ivory-bill’s beak was actually keratin, and it had symbolic importance to Indigenous and colonial Americans who traded the animals’ bills and plumage. When folded, the wings on the bird formed a triangle of white feathers; unfurled, the wings had a sweeping curtain of white on their trailing half, making the bird look more like a glider in flight than a plane.

Male ivory-bills had impressive red crests and females’ were black. Both sexes had petrifying yellow eyes. In its totality, the woodpecker evoked something prehistoric, and it’s generally said that this striking morphology is what gave the bird its nickname, the “Lord God” bird, for the exclamation people resorted to when they saw it.

The animals’ sounds included the iconic double-knock it would rap on trees and the trumpety “kent” call it would trill to other members of its species. The ivory-bill’s kent also set it apart from the pileated woodpecker, which has a call that sounds a lot more like a cackle than the toy horn toots of its presumed-gone cousin.

The ivory-bill thrived in the southeastern U.S. until a logging boom in the early 20th century chopped up its once-sprawling habitat into disconnected chunks. The bird has reportedly been sighted in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, and Florida since its inclusion on the endangered species list in 1967, with birders claiming to have seen it moving in the dense foliage of oaks, pines, palmettos, and cypress forests.

The bird was presumed extinct even before it was officially listed as endangered; in the early 1900s, the logging industry rapidly cut through America’s old-growth forests, destroying habitat that had protected the creatures that called them home for centuries or more. The first half of the 20th century saw the final acts of such charismatic species as the California grizzly, the Carolina parakeet, and Florida’s red and black wolves.

“The ivory-bill got swept along, in terms of our perception of it,” said Chris Haney, a conservation scientist and a former research scientist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “In other words, the thinking was so dire in the late 1800s and the first 10 or 20 years of the 20th century that the ivory-bill got buried alive.”

By the 1920s and 1930s, ivory-bills were a collector’s item, a status that further sped their demise. When word got out that two birds were found in Florida (what was effectively the species’ rediscovery), two taxidermists promptly went into the woods and shot the pair; the dead birds may have later been sold for $US175 ($243).

The scientist who found the birds, Arthur Allen, mentored a young researcher named James Tanner, who later that decade documented a breeding pair of ivory-bills on the Singer Tract in Louisiana, so-named for the sewing machine company that owned the land. Tanner’s observations are some of the most extensive accounts of the birds and their behaviour.

In the same year Tanner began his research, the sewing company sold the logging rights on the tract to a Chicago-based lumber company. The president of the Audubon Society at the time appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ordered the secretary of the interior to figure out a solution. The interior secretary secured $US200,000 ($277,660) (more than $US3 ($4) million today) from the state to set aside some of the land as a wildlife refuge.

But with the money all lined up and the deal endorsed by the president, the lumber company leasing the land backed out of the deal. The company’s chairman declared, “we are just money grubbers” who are “not concerned with ethical considerations.”

A young wildlife artist named Donald Eckleberry was the last person to spot the birds on the Singer Tract in 1944. The Audubon Society commissioned him to paint the doomed birds, and he watched as the logging company’s laborers (themselves prisoners of war) cut down the very trees the last Singer Tract birds lived in. The once-vibrant habitat was now dead lumber. The incredibly banal use of the last of the storied woodpecker’s habitat was a final insult to injury: the Lord God Bird had been pushed to the brink of extinction (if not over it) for lumber that would, among other things, be used to make tea chests for the British.

One of the last known ivory-billed woodpeckers, on the Singer Tract in Louisiana in 1935. (Gif: Arthur A. Allen & Peter Paul Kellogg / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
One of the last known ivory-billed woodpeckers, on the Singer Tract in Louisiana in 1935. (Gif: Arthur A. Allen & Peter Paul Kellogg / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
In an era where we lose three football fields of the Amazon every minute or the recent past where tracts of ancient redwoods were cleared, it’s hard to grasp the enormity of the natural world’s destruction. It’s easier to focus our attention on a species rather than an ecosystem. We mourn habitat lost through the species that lived there, and a bird that makes people exclaim in exhilaration when spotted is liable to be a focal point.

The ivory-billed woodpecker is essentially the Tasmanian tiger of the U.S. Few, if any, native animals have so fiercely captured our collective attention in the years since they’ve been lost; the singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens even sang a typically wistful elegy to the Lord God Bird.

Yet our understanding of the bird itself is based on hazy memories, passed through time like a game of telephone. In his descriptions of the birds from the 1930s, Arthur Allen noted that much of what he observed of their behaviour and traits was out of step with what John James Audubon wrote about the birds nearly a century earlier. What the most fervent ivory-billed searchers have to guide them now is a Frankenstein of sepia-toned photographs, journal entries, museum specimens, scratch audio recordings, and mildewed newspaper clippings. But then, maybe that’s part of the allure.

Despite decades of searching in vain, people continue to look for the ivory-bill. And they want their efforts to be vindicated by a sighting. Some think they already have.

“This is a bird that, once you’ve seen it, you don’t mistake it for another bird. It flies different than just about any bird in the swamp,” said Bobby Harrison, a nature photographer at Oakwood University in Alabama. Harrison said he first saw the bird in 2004, but has seen it as recently as September 2020 — and captured video in the latter case that he plans to submit to FWS following the public comment period.

Footage of purported ivory-billed woodpeckers, it’s worth noting, has historically been almost comically indiscernible. While there are recordings of raps on trees indicative of the ivory-bills’ knocks, authorities pooh-pooh that evidence in favour of photographs (or even better, video footage).

In 1971, a duck hunter in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin took a couple of shots of purported ivory-bills in trees. The hunter shared the photos with an ornithologist who brought them to that year’s ornithological association meeting, where they were dismissed by experts as tree-mounted taxidermy birds.

People tend to see what they want to see in these videos, whether that be evidence of the bird’s return or evidence that seekers have nothing to go on. Photos of ivory-bills so far made public by FWS following the comment period have all been of pileated woodpeckers.

While there have been plenty of reported sightings since 1944, none is more famous than the case made public in 2005: a report authored by 17 researchers and published in the journal Science describing sightings in eastern Arkansas in 2004 and 2005. That group was acting on sightings made by Harrison, the Oakwood University nature photographer, and Tim Gallagher, then the editor of Cornell’s ornithology magazine, Living Bird. Harrison and Gallagher reported their sighting after following up on a sighting reported by a canoeist in a local swamp. Not that academic credentials mean everything in the world of birders, but in terms of rigour, this is about as scientific as it gets.

John Fitzpatrick, an ornithologist at Cornell University and the director emeritus of the university’s esteemed ornithology lab, said that he first found out about the sightings back in Ithaca.

“Tim was basically perched outside my office looking very ill. He was gaunt and pale and worried, and I thought he was going to tell me that he was either sick or he had taken another job,” Fitzpatrick, who led the Science paper, said. (Of course, the ghost Gallagher had seen was a bird that was supposed to have died out 60 years earlier, and now he had to tell a respected colleague about it.) “I grilled him pretty hard,” and after hearing the account multiple times and recording the conservations, “I said, ‘Tim, our lives are about to change.’”

Fitzpatrick and Gallagher returned to the area with a team of researchers from Cornell. The research subject was kept under wraps, to avoid the sort of hoopla that would’ve followed if their true intentions were public. In the field, the team referred to the woodpecker as “Elvis” to avoid any leaks.

A personable ivory-bill nestling (nicknamed Sonny Boy) in 1938. There hasn't been a widely-accepted ivory-bill sighting since 1944. (Photo: James T. Tanner)
A personable ivory-bill nestling (nicknamed Sonny Boy) in 1938. There hasn’t been a widely-accepted ivory-bill sighting since 1944. (Photo: James T. Tanner)

Not that the team didn’t make a scene. Gallagher said the Cornell researchers looked like a “landing party from Mars” when they arrived in small-town Arkansas with their arsenal of binoculars, cameras, and recording equipment. The team reported more observations of the woodpecker in the field that became part of the backbone of their research paper.

Publication of the 2005 study, which included video of a bird that the authors said matched the description of an ivory-billed woodpecker, was met with every emotion in the book. Many — ornithologists and ordinary people alike — were overjoyed about the species’ apparent persistence, a triumph for the bird just as much as it was for the birders who doggedly pursued it in spite of its presumed extinction.

But others were sceptical or dismissive of the reports, arguing that elements of the bird captured in the team’s video — namely its wings, which despite the bird’s actual name are the tell-tale way to distinguish it from a pileated woodpecker in the field — were not characteristic of an ivory-bill. (Since the video of purported ivory-bills was taken in the mid-2000s, the resolution is about what you might expect, and is further hampered by the fact that seekers were filming the bird through the dense undergrowth of the southern swampland.)

Points and counterpoints were levied in quick succession in scientific journals; vocal critics of the paper included David Sibley of bird guide fame and Jerome Jackson, an ornithologist at Florida Gulf Coast University and longtime scholar of the bird, who wrote in The Auk that the researchers were “delving into ‘faith-based’ ornithology and doing a disservice to science.” Suffice to say that things got ugly.

Fitzpatrick said that audio recordings of a large black-and-white woodpecker near Arkansas’ Cache River made a couple of years later had very similar acoustics to the birds recorded on the Singer Tract in 1935, the only confirmed audio of ivory-bills (though bird calls resembling kents have been recorded in the intervening years, including a 1968 recording from Texas). But the recordings from Arkansas weren’t published.

“We made the decision by that point in 2008 that the last thing we need to do is to get into another pissing match about whether this is proof,” Fitzpatrick said. “From the very start, I personally and we generally at the lab never regarded my obligation as being trying to convince everybody that we were correct. We regarded our obligation — and I regarded my obligation — as making sure that we do our best at providing all the evidence we have and letting people draw their conclusions from the evidence we have.”

“Some regard it as conclusive, some regard it as suggestive, some regard it as pretty questionable, some regard it as bullshit,” Fitzpatrick added. “My job was never to try to convince sceptics that they were wrong.”

When the Fish and Wildlife Service came out with its decision to remove the bird from the endangered species list, many people involved with the ivory-bill were dumbstruck. Though it has been nearly 80 years since the last confirmed sighting, the service has previously thrown its weight behind conservation efforts. In the four years after the Science paper, $US2 ($3) million in federal funds were spent on searches for the animal.

“The decision is NOT a scientific decision, but a bureaucratic decision,” said Jackson, the Florida Gulf Coast University ornithologist who criticised the 2005 paper, said in an email to Gizmodo. “Using scientific methods you can prove that something exists. You cannot prove that something doesn’t exist.”

That said, Jackson is clear that he is not in the living camp. “We simply don’t have the old-growth habitat that ivory-bills need — or the regularity of seasonal habitat perturbations caused by flooding, fire, etc. that maintained that habitat,” he said. With the disappearance of the old-growth forests came the disappearance of the large beetle larvae the birds ate. “Bottom line is that the ivory-bill is probably extinct,” Jackson said.

Still, the FWS decision to delist the bird is quite the reversal. After the video included in Fitzpatrick’s team’s paper was published, the service reviewed it and felt it sufficient enough evidence of the bird’s existence to refute claims to the contrary. (The service’s page about the bird’s rediscovery is no longer online.)

Even at the height of tensions regarding the 2005 paper, plans to save the species pushed on, with FWS’s weight behind it. In 2007, Haney — the agency conservation scientist — published technical comments on the FWS Draft Recovery Plan for the woodpecker on behalf of the non-profit organisation Defenders of Wildlife. Haney deemed the plan insufficient to protect a species that, if truly there, was surely on the brink of extinction.

As recently as 2010, the service drew up plans for how it would pull the bird back from the brink of extinction.“Identify and reduce risks to any existing population,” was among one of the recovery objectives. But the bird’s fate — at least in the eyes of FWS — reached a turning point in 2019. The service’s five-year review recommended the bird be declared extinct, starting the chain reaction of public comments that concluded this year. The main criticism now being levied by researchers who previously or currently have looked for the bird is that if any population of ivory-bills does exist, removing them from the endangered species list surely does them no favours.

“The Endangered Species Act requires a species to be delisted due to recovery or extinction allowing the Service and its partners to better allocate resources,” Amy Trahan, a FWS biologist, wrote in an email. “The determination to delist is based on the best available science at the time of the delisting. Extinction is difficult to detect, therefore, the Service makes reasonable conclusions based on the scientific information available.”

Haney, who has written a book on the cognitive blunders the human mind can make — and their relevance on either side of the ivory-bill debate — said in a phone call that it’s important to be aware of one’s biases. Our psychology plays a complicated role in sightings and thinking about such rare animals; we project profound feelings of sorrow, guilt, and awe onto the species that human activities have killed off. It’s something that Fitzpatrick said his team had numerous conversations about the tricks those feelings could play on their minds as they headed into the field, especially because birds that look and sound like the ivory-bill inhabit the same woods that it once thrived in.

“The presumption should be life,” Haney said. “This bird has taunted us for 100 years — it’s quite a trickster — and it’s easier to settle into a certain story of extinction than it is to allow for the fact that it might be alive.”

Species reappearing from presumed nonexistence happens often enough that they have a name: Lazarus species. It even happened recently with another bird. The black-browed babbler in Southeast Asia was found last year after being presumed extinct for more than 170 years.

That doesn’t mean it’ll happen with the ivory-billed woodpecker — after all, large-scale search efforts have been made — but there’s also a lot of ground to cover. Tanner — the ornithologist who studied the birds at the Singer Tract — once compared finding the bird to finding a living needle in a haystack, one capable of moving to and fro. By the time you get to where it is, it could already be gone.

Fitzpatrick, Harrison, and Gallagher all submitted evidence in the current public comment period. Harrison said he has video taken just last fall that he believes shows an ivory-bill in flight. Still others, like Matt Courtman, are doubling down on their active searches for the bird. Courtman is, in his own words, a self-described “recovering lawyer” who now spends his time looking for the bird in Louisiana, in swamplands filled with venomous snakes, feral hogs, and, just to add a degree of difficulty, pileated woodpeckers.

Courtman also heads up Mission Ivorybill, a grassroots group that kicked off a planned three-year search for the bird last month.

In the past decade, some researchers have modelled the likelihood of the bird’s survival based on reported sightings and the amount of habitat left for the animals. It’s a common practice in conservation biology, and a generally useful one to apply to animal populations that are very hard to find, like those that are presumed extinct.

But Courtman said that the models are relying on bad information, like Tanner’s 1942 estimation of 22 birds remaining. That estimate has been factored into papers estimating the birds’ total number today, which Courtman thinks is misguided. “The idea that one person in a Model T could thoroughly look for ivory-bills is just silly,” Courtman said, making the models “garbage in, garbage out.” Courtman feels that the answer to any questions about the ivory-bill won’t be found by a computer algorithm, but by actually heading out into the field and observing what’s out there.

It’s “ambiguity about the bird itself which plays such a big role in all of the debates that are happening,” said Hunter, the geographer mapping the bird’s history and its relationship with humankind. “If you disagree about the very facts of the bird — what it would look like in flight, where it would be, what it would sound like — it’s almost like people are talking about a different bird if they’re coming from all these different perspectives.”

A stuffed male ivory-bill in Albany in 2005.  (Photo: Jim McKnight, AP)
A stuffed male ivory-bill in Albany in 2005. (Photo: Jim McKnight, AP)

It’s also why much of the ivory-bill debate focuses on how the bird would flap its wings and how much it would resemble woodpeckers or ducks in flight. In lieu of a living animal, researchers are forced to reconstruct the bird’s behaviour from the precious little video and written descriptions that exist.

Hunter studies the history of the ivory-billed woodpecker through archived footage, recordings, and writings on the bird. She feels the disconnects on how the bird moved in life is “key for why there is so much disagreement, because it’s almost like the ivory-bill that the Fish and Wildlife Service are talking about is not the same ivory-bill that Mission Ivorybill is talking about.”

Without any acceptable proof, the animal will be exiled (at least titularly) to the realm of extinction, and legal protections it enjoyed even in absentia will no longer apply.

Does it matter if the ivory-billed woodpecker is gone forever? It does, inasmuch as the bird is irreplaceable. But the environment the bird resided in still needs conservation; there are likely still plenty of species in the habitat that are as-of-yet unknown to science. These animals could suffer something called anonymous extinction, where the species die out before being named, an even more ignominious end than the ivory-billed’s last stand in the Singer Tract. Dozens of species could go extinct every day, and now is the time to act to keep them alive. If in the 1940s old-growth forests started to get the protection that some are trying to ensure for them now, perhaps the ivory-billed woodpecker would be seen across the Southeast today rather than a ghost.

“The only advantage of declaring the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct at this point is number one — to once again raise the question of extinction in general,” Jackson said. “We are knocking species off right and left, and most of them just go without any announcement of their disappearance … Most people don’t see the connection between fungi and woodpeckers, beetles and woodpeckers.”

It’s an easy one to miss since those species blend in with the background while the ivory-billed woodpecker soars in our minds. But their relative anonymity doesn’t make them any less worthy of search or salvation. Our nostalgia for the Lord God Bird exists because we have already lost so much. And if we fail to heed its warnings, soon we’ll be living in a shadow world.

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