The Why Files The Why Files --

Extinct or not extinct?

POSTED 19 MAY 2005
Diehard: Case of the ivory-billed woodpecker
TBlack and white photo of woodpeckerhey called the giant woodpecker the "lord god bird," for the awed vocalizations of primates lucky enough to see it, or "kent, kent" for its weird honk, which was once compared to the croak of a student clarinetist. In the mature, lowland forests of the American Southeast, ivory-bills searched for beetle larvae by prying bark from dead tupelos, water oaks and cypresses with its big, bony beak. The last for-sure sighting, in the 1940s, coincided with the low point of the bird's forest habitat.

Ivory-billed woodpecker, Singer Tract, Lousiana, 1935. Photo: courtesy of David Allen, Big Woods Conservation Partnership.

The era of widespread logging was done, but the ivory-billed woodpecker was about as healthy as the forests themselves.

Was the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct?

Painting of large red-crested bird on tree trunkIvory-bill, painted by Mark Catesby,1683-1749, from The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, London, 1754. Image: Special Collections, Memorial Library, UW-Madison Libraries

Nobody was sure it had outlived the 1940s, but as the forest gradually started recovering, many people reported glimpses of the giant woodpecker. After all, even though the handsome bird was protected by vast swamps, hordes of mosquitoes, and poisonous snakes, its size, striking clothing style, and recent disappearance made the woodpecker the Holy Grail of birders who hoped, against reason, that it had survived the decimation of its home habitat.

In April, after 60 years of doubt, researchers reported seven solid sightings of a male ivory-billed woodpecker in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas -- see "Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus ...)" in the bibliography.

Heavily camouflaged man and boat in murky waters.Damn damp job: One ornithologist goes the extra mile to blend in to search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Wearing camouflage, Bobby Harrison, Oakwood College associate professor, searches for ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas. March 2005. Photo: Mark Godfrey The Nature Conservancy

Bird's eye view
The hubbub began quietly enough. In February, 2004, a lone kayaker in the Big Woods made a solid sighting of the woodpecker, and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy led dozens of experienced ornithologists in a search that produced about 24 sightings (not all strong enough to be included in the published research) and one grainy video showing the bird making a hasty departure.

"The bird captured on video is clearly an ivory-billed woodpecker," John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and leader of the research team, told an organization devoted to conserving the Big Woods. This was not, after all, what birders call a "little brown job," a generic little bird easily mistaken for something else. It was a big, grand black-and-white bird with a characteristic style of flying. "Amazingly, America may have another chance to protect the future of the ivory-billed woodpecker and the awesome forests where it lives," Fitzpatrick continued.

Bird quickly  and gracefully soars through trees.For best results, play this highly enhanced, 2.5 MB movie frame-by-frame. Movie:Big Woods Conservation Partnership

As recently as 1885, vast forests cloaked the lowlands of the American South: from the Carolinas to Florida, west to Louisiana, and up the Mississippi to Nashville. In warm, wet, lowlands, a profusion of giant, ancient trees structured a flourishing ecosystem, says Scott Weidensaul, author of a book on the search for vanished species (see "The Ghost with Trembling Wings" in the bibliography). "It was this astonishing landscape, one of the signature American landscapes, with giant cypress, giant water oaks, water tupelos, a flooded forest." The surviving scraps of habitat, he says, are "kind of like being on another planet, with draperies of Spanish moss, like a little bit of the Amazon."

The forest nearly vanished by 1940, he says. "It was almost obliterated, almost to the last stick; virtually every acre of old growth bottomland was cut."

Map of southeastern US shows shrinking bird habitat.
Shrinking U.S. range of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Serious logging of the bottomland hardwood forests in the Southeast began in the 1880s. By about 1940, the habitat was almost obliterated; now trees are starting to return on large parts of the original forest. Maps: adapted from The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, by James T. Tanner, published in 1942 by the National Audubon Society by The Nature Conservancy

Solo survivor?
Ornithologists and conservationists were thrilled that one of the big woodpeckers is still soaring through forests that are, themselves, slowly rejuvenating. "It was very exciting, for a number of reasons," says conservation biologist Stanley Temple of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who briefly searched for the bird decades ago while a graduate student. "It's obviously nice to think that a species gets a second chance, after everybody has concluded that it was extinct. It's also an incredible tribute to the conservationists who preserved the habitat it was ultimately found in, without any knowledge that the ivory-billed woodpecker was there." (Ivory-bills also used to live in Cuba, where the last good sighting was in 1988.)

click for sound file Click player for a 204 KB audio of the ivory-bill. Audio: Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

The Nature Conservancy, a land-conservation group, says it, along with numerous partners, has helped conserve 120,000 acres of bottomland in the Big Woods, and replanted hardwood forest in 50,000 of those acres.

Grove of trees grow in muddy river waters, canoer in middle groundBig Woods Conservation Partnership project volunteer, Jim Fitzpatrick with his dog, Drake, set off to search for ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas. February 2005. Photo: Mark Godfrey The Nature Conservancy

The federal government, proud that the diehard woodpecker appeared in the federal Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, joined the excitement. "This is a rare second chance to preserve through cooperative conservation what was once thought lost forever," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said, via press release. "Decisive conservation action and continued progress through partnerships are now required. I will appoint the best talent in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local citizens to develop a Corridor of Hope Cooperative Conservation Plan to save the Ivory-billed woodpecker."

Corridor of hope, or pathway of doom?
The "Corridor of Hope" refers to the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas, an area about 120 miles long and up to 20 miles wide. The Interior Department, Shredded and torn bark on treealong with the Department of Agriculture, has proposed spending more than $10 million in federal funds to protect the bird with research and monitoring, recovery planning and public education.

A tree with bark and wood stripped from it is possible evidence of the presence of the ivory-billed woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas. February 2005. Photo: Mark Godfrey The Nature Conservancy

But hope for the ivory-bill must be tempered by reality: One animal does not make a living species, and so far, no females have been seen. As Temple notes. "If this is the sighting of some 'Lonesome George' bird, it could end up being a bittersweet story -- there is one individual, but he could be the last one." (Lonesome George was the sole survivor of a race of Galapagos tortoises.)

In a time of accelerating extinctions, when endangered species are being pinched by a shortage of habitat and a glut of invasive species, conserving habitat is key to protecting species, both drab and showy. "For me, as a conservation biologist [the return of the ivory-billed] shows that we are on the right track by identifying key examples of remaining ecosystems and protecting them," says Temple. "It works."

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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