Pictured above: “Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1829,” Robert Havell after John James Audubon. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.)

 

Even in black-and-white photos and drawings, it is not hard to understand why the ivory-billed woodpecker was often known by another moniker: the Lord God Bird. So-called for the exclamation it elicited from observers, the words “majestic,” “magnificent” and “impressive” come up frequently in descriptions of the bird.

 

At 20 inches long, with a 30-inch wingspan, the ivorybill was one of the largest woodpeckers in the world and the largest north of Mexico. The males’ striking red crest, paired with black-and-white plumage and a lemon-yellow eye, made it an especially distinctive inhabitant of the bottomland hardwood forests that once covered large swaths of the southeastern United States.

 

Though long thought extinct in many corners, the persistent hope that a population of ivorybills might still reside somewhere deep in the Delta has made for the occasional controversy between believers and skeptics. The latest chapter in the ongoing saga came in May of this year, when the journal  Ecology and Evolution published a study claiming “multiple lines of evidence,” collected over a decade, pointing to the continued existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Louisiana.

 

This report comes in the midst of an especially uncertain moment for the ivorybill. The bird’s official status is in a kind of bureaucratic limbo as far as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned. After releasing a recovery plan for the species in 2010 following its alleged rediscovery in eastern Arkansas, in 2021, the agency proposed the removal of the ivorybill from the endangered species list due to extinction.

 

The uproar that followed convinced the FWS to delay that decision for another six months, starting in July 2022. Well past the updated deadline, the agency still has yet to make an official move one way or the other. While the overall feeling among researchers and experts seems to be one of skepticism, some prominent ornithologists and conservation groups are doubling down on their efforts to locate any surviving birds and settle the ivorybill question once and for all.

 

I. Bye bye, birdie

 

In the realm of conservation, a decline like that of the ivorybill is unfortunately an all-too-familiar story. On top of pressure from hunters looking to add an eye-catching specimen to their collections, the most damaging existential threat to the species was the loss of unbroken expanses of old-growth forest required to sustain it. Unchecked logging operations meant the decimation of much of the bird’s historical habitat, leading to severe population declines into the late 1800s and early 1900s.

 

In the late 1930s, conservation groups tried and failed to preserve the 81,000-acre Singer Tract in Louisiana – named for the Singer Sewing Machine Co., which owned the land – where the last remaining members of the species resided. Instead, Singer sold the logging rights to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Co. Shortly thereafter, the company took to felling what the American Bird Conservancy called “the largest piece of old-growth swamp forest left in the South.”

 

As most sources have it, the last “universally accepted” sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker came in 1944, when a lone female was spotted at a roost hole for the last time in what remained of the Singer Tract. In the decades that followed, the bird was all but assumed extinct. But the search for survivors continued, and alleged sightings were reported regularly — some more widely believed than others — though none as conclusive as the Singer Tract appearance.

 

Then, in the early 2000s, reports out of Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas, including a few-seconds long video of a large woodpecker taken in Bayou DeView, were enough to convince the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Fish and Wildlife Service and others that the bird had finally been rediscovered. Following an official announcement in 2005, researchers and birders of all stripes flocked to the state in a massive search effort.

 

Per the Cornell Lab, the entire search from 2006 to 2010 covered more than 523,000 acres in eight states while the search area in the Natural State included both the Cache River and White River National Wildlife Refuges. Though volunteers and researchers recorded a number of promising aural and visual “encounters,” Cornell eventually concluded that “no definitive evidence of a surviving Ivory-billed Woodpecker population was found.”

 

Trey Reid, assistant chief of communications with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, joined AGFC in November of 2006 and took part in some of those search efforts.

 

“I don’t want to inflate my sense of importance to anything that happened,” he said. “I was just one of many people who were brought in to do things like sit in duck blinds for four-hour sessions and see if you saw any woodpeckers fly by or heard anything.”

 

The multi-agency search also included aerial transect surveys by helicopter.

 

“It was not much above freezing the day I did my flight,” Reid said. “You’re strapped, tethered with a carabiner into the back seat of the helicopter, with the door off, and essentially holding a camera and watching the entire time. It was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life.”

ivorybilled ivorybill

For the untrained eye, it’s easy to mistake the pileated woodpecker for an ivorybill.
(Photo courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks Heritage and Tourism.)

Though it was thrilling to be a part of what AGFC was doing at the time, Reid said he never saw any ivorybills. Instead, he found plenty of pileated woodpeckers, a much more common species that looks similar to the ivorybill and often misleads would-be rediscoverers.

 

Karen Rowe, certified wildlife biologist and nongame bird program coordinator at AGFC, has also encountered her fair share of false alarms, from the well-intentioned to the outright outlandish.

 

“Just recently, somewhere, somehow, there was some information put out that had my name, and ‘game and fish,’ and ‘ivorybill’ with it,” Rowe said. “I was getting calls from people in Connecticut – which never had ivory-billed woodpeckers – and all over the southeast. People were calling me to report that they had seen an ivorybill.”

 

Rowe pointed to species including the swallow-tailed kite, roseate spoonbill and king rail as other case studies of birds bouncing back. From only a handful of king rails found during a survey in the mid-1990s, efforts from AGFC and other agencies to restore emerging wetland habitats have managed to foster a resurgence.

 

“It’s the old ‘[If you] build it, they will come,’” Rowe said. “Great things happen in the Arkansas Delta; great things happen in the wetlands. It’s neat to see something come back, whether it’s a bald eagle or, better yet, a king rail. And maybe the ivorybill will come back too. Who knows?”

 

For those of a similar mind to Reid and Rowe, the interest in and passion for ivorybills has an optimistic ring to it, regardless of whether the search turns up any living birds.

 

“What I find is the most important thing that resulted from the questions about the existence of ivorybills is the habitat conservation that resulted from it,” Rowe said. “Bottomland hardwoods provide habitat for such an important suite of species, from wintering waterfowl to summer warblers that are in steep decline. That provided us some funding, and federal funding, for conservation easements, for habitat conservation in bottomland hardwoods. That’s the bird’s legacy, is the fact that it highlighted its habitat.”

Mission Ivorybill team members Carla DeMoss, right, and Ryan Pepper searching in the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. (Photos provided.)

II. A bird (not quite) in the hand

 

One of the people at the forefront of the continued search for the ivorybill is Matt Courtman, former lawyer and founder of Mission Ivorybill. The Louisiana-based organization focuses on outreach and education concerning the ivory-billed woodpecker and its potential whereabouts.

 

Courtman takes issue with the Fish and Wildlife Service — and many of the mainstream narratives about the ivorybill — on a few fronts, beginning with that “universally accepted” sighting in the Singer Tract.

 

“In ’71, Louisina State University ornithologist George Lowery brought two photos of a male ivory-billed woodpecker to the American Ornithologists Union meeting, and those two photos were accepted … in the October issue of American Birds, which was a publication of the Audubon Society,” Courtman said. “It was the authoritative record of bird distribution in the United States.”

 

Courtman also considers the 2010 recovery plan from the Fish and Wildlife Service to be an “unambiguous decision that the ivorybill still [exists].” Overall, though, his main contentions sort into two areas: obtaining unquestionable proof of the bird’s existence and correcting errors in reporting around the ivorybill.

 

For example, he stressed the importance of accuracy when it comes to the bird’s current status. Since the Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to make a move in either direction after delaying the removal of the bird from the endangered species list, the ivorybill is not, from a paperwork standpoint at least, “extinct,” as the American Bird Conservancy puts it, “The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is among 24 bird species in the Western Hemisphere considered to be ‘lost.’ ”

Matt Courtman

Courtman has been involved in many a search effort of his own for the ivorybill over the years, primarily in Louisiana, but also in Arkansas and South Carolina.

 

“I’ve spent over 2,000 hours looking for the ivorybill,” he said. “So that’s about 7.2 million seconds, and of that time, of the five times I’ve seen the ivorybill, I’ve seen it, in the aggregate, about 20 seconds.”

 

His findings have ranged from “intriguing scaling” — consistent, he holds, with the markings an ivorybill was known to leave on trees — to sightings and audio recordings, though he admits the need for better proof. As Courtman sees it, the importance of conducting as close to a comprehensive search as possible is vital to proving the bird’s existence.

 

“We search all year round,” he said. “We like to search about five days a week, but in July and August, we cut way back, just because it’s so quiet. The birds aren’t very active.”

 

On the heels of two 2019 sightings, in one of which he contends he saw not just one, but a pair of ivorybills, Courtman was confident that the bird “at least had a chance.” This hope was the catalyst for he and wife, Lauren, to formalize the search into their life’s work; the pair founded Mission Ivorybill that year.

 

The group makes their presence known in official channels as staunch opposition to the bird’s delisting. In response to the initial FWS proposal, Courtman requested and was granted a public hearing. In the slew of public commentary that followed, Courtman said, “I think we made it clear that you can’t declare the ivorybill extinct.”

While the official fate of the ivorybill might remain in question, Mission Ivorybill has an even more extensive project planned for this fall, with the hopes of locating the bird and convincing the skeptics. The group is kicking off its five-year effort in the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. Starting with a grid pattern of search areas, members spend three consecutive days in each designated spot. They arrive 20 minutes before first light and spend 90 minutes in stationary observation. After that, they make their way quietly through the woods in search of active woodpecker cavities.

 

“Our strategy is to be able to hear them first thing in the morning and then isolate where they are,” Courtman said. “Unfortunately, while I have theories as to cavities that are more likely ivorybill than pileated, we don’t know yet, so all we do is we find large cavities and see if they’re active.”

Throughout the course of Mission Ivorybill’s work, the group has had people from 13 states, Canada and even the United Kingdom join in the efforts.

 

“You kind of have to be, not crazy, but very, very committed,” Courtman said. “We have what’s called a special use permit, which was granted by the biologists at Tensas NWR, so we’ve put up our own automated recording units there. We have lots and lots of hours of recordings that we still haven’t gone through.

 

“I would think anybody who’s concerned about conservation would say, ‘If there’s a 10 percent chance that the world’s leading ornithologists think the ivorybill should not be declared extinct, then we ought to go with the world’s leading ornithologists.’ I don’t know why that doesn’t sweep the day. I don’t have an ax to grind; I just want the truth. We’re trying to give the ivorybill a better approach. We’ve really just begun, and we’re very excited about it.”

ivorybill ivorybilled

Than Boves has spent a lot of time in the bottomland hardwoods, but he has not come across an ivorybill.

III. A bird’s-eye view

 

It can be easy to get bogged down in the endless minutia of government reports, contradictory claims and inconclusive audiovisual clips surrounding the ivorybill, but it is important not to miss the forest for the trees: in broad strokes, the feeling among ornithologists working in and around the bottomland hardwoods can be described as serious doubt with a pinch of, “I would love to be wrong.”

Alix Matthews

That is the opinion of Than Boves, professor of ecology at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, and Alix Matthews, a doctoral candidate at A-State in Boves’ lab, who will begin teaching at Rhodes College in Memphis this fall. Over the course of their research, Boves and Matthews have both spent plenty of time in what would be prime ivorybill habitat, and neither is convinced of its continued existence.

“I’ve imagined hearing an ivorybill many times, and I’ve heard things in the woods that would excite me for a second,” said Boves, who has been studying birds for nearly two decades. “Then I’d realize it was a bluejay, or it was a pileated woodpecker. I have spent a decent amount of time chasing down things that I probably, deep down, knew wasn’t going to be an ivorybill.”

 

It is especially fitting for scientists to have that mix of hope tempered with skepticism, and as Boves said, “anything is possible.” Still, Matthews explained, her doubts come down not only to a lack of that elusive “unambiguous” evidence, but a numbers game as well.

 

“I think it’s really unlikely that there are enough breeding pairs occupying suitable habitat in the wild that could sustain those populations,” she said, “because it’s not just about an individual bird flying around for however long that it can live. It has to be a sustainable population that’s breeding and continuing on.”

 

Both researchers also raised concerns about the lack of unimpeachable photographic evidence, not least because of the technology available to capture images of rare birds nowadays.

 

“We have people that [photograph birds] for a living; we have thousands of people that do it as a hobby with incredible skill and equipment,” Boves said. “All I would want to see is the same evidence I would want for any bird: a decent photo that you can actually use to identify the field marks without closing your eyes and imagining those field marks.”

 

Boves also acknowledged the counterargument that decades of hunting may have driven the once-gregarious ivorybill into hiding.

ivorybill

One of Alix Matthews study species is the prothonotary warbler which breeds in bottomland hardwood forests similar to what the ivorybill would have.(Photos by Paige Walker.)

“If they behaved in the way that they did when people did see them, we would have seen them by now. I don’t think there’s any doubt of that,” he said. “They were not birds that were secretive and skulky, in the grass or in the underbrush. They were up high in trees, making lots of noise, knocking bark off the trees and doing things that would be really obvious.

 

“The one hope is that they’ve either evolved their behavior because their populations went so low, and the only ones that survived were those that did these weird things, or they’ve somehow learned to avoid humans really well.”

 

While he might be more convinced by that line of reasoning in a tropical rainforest, Boves just does not buy it in a country like the United States. But neither he nor Matthews begrudge those who continue looking into the ivorybill, even if they refrain from placing any bets themselves. And at the end of the day, belief is a powerful thing.

“Working in those habitats, the historical habitat of the ivory-billed woodpecker, intensely for several years, I’ve met lots of people who really truly believe they’ve seen it in the last 20 years,” Matthews said. “They don’t have any evidence to support it, but they truly believe what they’ve seen, and you can’t really argue with somebody that’s passionate like that.”

 

In contrast to the heated positions of those on either side of the delisting debate, Boves has a more balanced view of the ivorybill’s official status.

 

“I would say you might as well err on the side of caution and leave it on the endangered species list,” he said. “What harm does it do?  Other than clearing a line off of a spreadsheet somewhere at Fish and Wildlife, I don’t see how it really impacts them very much, or other species, for that matter.”

 

Similar to Reid and Rowe at AGFC, Matthews and Boves tend to consider the ivorybill in terms of the habitat it represents rather than a possible miracle-in-waiting.

 

“They’re not the only species that live in that habitat, so if we’re able to protect that space, we’re not just protecting the potential for ivorybills to be living there, but also all the currently living animals that do exist within that space,” Matthews said. “Especially being in Arkansas, the ivorybill is sort of a ‘close to home’ story, because this was one of the last places that it was seen, and one of its historical habitats. So I think people can make that connection really clearly. We don’t want a whole bunch of ivory-billed woodpecker stories from species around us.”

 

Perhaps most telling is the fact that, in addition to the ivorybill, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s initial proposal to delist due to extinction included no less than 22 other species. Regardless of the ivorybill’s fate in particular, there is a clear need for action in general when it comes to preventing birds and other wildlife from suffering a similar end.

 

“Conservation is a field that incorporates scientists, policy makers and economists, and the public has a stake in it. So it can get really complicated really quickly, with people having different ideas about what conservation is and what we should conserve,” Matthews added. “But the reality is that we as humans are only one species among millions in the world, so we have a big responsibility in terms of how we interact with the species around us.

 

“You don’t have to be a scientist to play a role in conservation, and everyone can do it. You don’t have to get stuck in the jargon of science. You can just go enjoy it and encourage other people to want to protect it. If you enjoy it, and you want other people to enjoy it, then there’s an incentive to protect it.” 

 

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