by Editor on January 19, 2015

This 1935 Image By Arthur A. Allen Is Among The Last Clear Photos Ever Taken Of Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers

This 1935 Image By Arthur A. Allen Is Among The Last Clear Photos Ever Taken Of Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers

Eleven Years After The “Extinct” Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Reappeared, Does This Storied Bird Still Exist?


For impassioned birders and informal wildlife enthusiasts alike, the wonder at the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker 11 years ago was akin to hearing that a mermaid had swum to shore in southern California, or that a living unicorn had emerged from a Scandinavian forest. The spectacular ivory-billed (Campephilus principalis), with a 30-inch wingspan and second in size only to one other woodpecker species in the world, had last been spotted by trained observers prior to World War Two, and was assumed by most ornithologists to have gone extinct, a victim of habitat destruction in the form of clearcut logging in the lowland forests of the southeastern U.S. where it lived. (Cuban populations of ivory-billed woodpeckers were also thought to have vanished.) But for the better part of a century many people had maintained a faint, almost fanciful, hope that the woodpecker still existed—and then suddenly, on February 27, 2004, there it was, winging from tree to tree through an Arkansas swamp in full view of two highly experienced witnesses.

“When we saw that bird, it was the most hopeful sign imaginable” that the ivory-billed would dodge extinction, said Cornell University’s Tim Gallagher during a January 2015 telephone interview with AAW. “While it’s possible the bird we saw was the last one in existence—what are the odds of that?” As well as being one of the first observers in 2004, Gallagher was and is editor-in-chief of the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s Living Bird Magazine, a veteran field researcher, and the author of five books on birds, including two that chronicle the hunts for missing species of woodpeckers.

In addition to the probability of more ivory-billed woodpeckers—including, perhaps, some breeding pairs—Gallagher and the rest of the birding world found further cause for optimism in the fact that vast expanses of the bird’s habitat had recovered from their wholesale leveling in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and were now ripe for repopulation by ivory-billeds.

“There’s a lot more good habitat now than there used to be,” Gallagher said. “In the U.S., there’s a ridiculous amount of habitat.”

Gallagher and his research colleague, Bobby Harrison, had been drawn to Arkansas that February after a kayaker named Gene Sparling reported seeing a bird that he though matched descriptions of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Gallagher and Harrison’s confirmative sighting triggered an avalanche of media attention followed by a massive, years-long search through the swamps of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Florida by legions of birders, professional and amateur alike. The result was a handful of additional sightings reported by experienced birders in 2004 and early 2005 as well as a brief video taken by University of Arkansas professor David Luneau in April 2004.

Sadly, however, as time wore on the ivory-billed woodpecker, having so suddenly re-emerged from the twilight of presumed extinction, inexorably faded back into ghostliness. A $10,000 reward for definitive proof went unclaimed, as none of the observers was able to produce an entirely undisputed photo or video—Luneau’s video having been called into question by some experts. And while it seems likely that a few sound recordings subsequent to the first sighting managed to capture the distinctive double-rap of an ivory-billed woodpecker drilling a tree for insects, even auditory evidence of the bird’s continued existence grew increasingly scarce—and all the recordings invariably were challenged by skeptics as being inconclusive.

Critics eventually began claiming that in spite of their experience, Gallagher, Harrison, Luneau, and all the rest of the witnesses had been betrayed by the strength of their own wishful thinking, and that they likely had confused the similar-looking, but smaller—and extremely plentiful—pileated woodpecker for the ivory-billed.

Finally in 2010, after six years of combing the swamps, Cornell University called off its disappointing official search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. In April 2015, it will have been a decade since the last ivory-billed woodpecker sighting by a reliable observer.

Gallagher told us he is confident of what he saw, and that he remains guardedly optimistic that a few ivory-billeds continue to haunt the Southeastern swamps. He said he absolutely does not accept the common assumption that if the bird still existed, birders would necessarily see it from time to time, and that by now someone would have taken an indisputable photo or video.

“It’s hard going out into the swamp, and it’s dangerous,” he explained. He said there are plenty of good hiding places for the birds, and that many of the remote locations where the ivory-billed is likely to be living are seldom visited even by the most dedicated birders. He added that tantalizing accounts of ivory-billeds continue to trickle in from hunters and other people who know the deep woods more intimately and spend more time in them than do most birders.

“We’re still getting some interesting reports from Arkansas and Florida,” he said. “We’ve got some really strong evidence” that ivory-billeds are still around.

“I’m still hopeful,” he said. “Whether [definitive proof] will happen in my lifetime or not, I don’t know.”

Gallagher concluded by telling us that, if and when he retires from Living Bird, he plans to pass a significant part of his retirement time in the southern swamps, trying to get another glimpse of an ivory-billed woodpecker.

If you’d like to read Gallagher’s thoughts on the 10th anniversary of his ivory-billed woodpecker sighting, click here.

Illustration: Jerry A. Payne

Illustration: Jerry A. Payne

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