A bevy of amateur birders and professional ornithologists are racing to prove the ivory-billed woodpecker still exists, before federal officials remove it from the endangered species list
The government, however, says the bird does not exist.
Last year the US Fish and Wildlife Service moved to declare the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. Decades of fruitless searches for the so-called “Lord God Bird,” the agency said, showed that it “no longer exists.”
But dozens of professional ornithologists and amateur birdwatchers claim the bird is still out there, pecking away undetected after the last undisputed sighting in 1944.
Now they are pointing cameras, scaling trees and deploying drones in a race to gather evidence and convince the government — and the public — that the woodpecker lives.
“I had the opportunity to see this bird, and I have some personal responsibility, some professional responsibility to convince others,” said Latta, who is lobbying the Biden administration to keep it on the government’s official list of endangered species.
Some other bird experts, however, say it is time to accept that the Lord God Bird is dead. No one, these critics say, has come forward with decisive proof — a high-quality photo, a carcass, even a feather.
“Decisions should be made on verifiable fact,” said Mark Robbins, an evolutionary biologist and manager of the ornithological collection at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute. “That has not been the case in anything that has been reported since the 1944 report.”
Federal officials are now weighing what to do. In July, Fish and Wildlife extended their deadline for officially determining whether the bird is extinct until next spring.
For centuries, the majestic “King of the Woodpeckers” reigned over forests from North Carolina to East Texas. Astonishing observers with its strength and elegance, the species earned its nickname the “Lord God Bird” for the way those lucky enough to see one would exclaim to the heavens.
But the ivory bill’s beauty hastened its undoing. During the 19th century, the bird’s population plummeted as plume hunters shot them for their feathers and beaks. Loggers, meanwhile, axed the tall hardwoods that formed the bird’s habitat.
Even the woodpeckers’ numbers declined, its fame only grew. The phantom bird inspired generations of painters, musicians and other artists, including as singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens and the creators of “Woody the Woodpecker.” The bird became America’s dodo, the country’s own emblem of extinction.
But a handful of birders never gave up hope, straining to listen for the ivory bill’s telltale double knock and look for other signs of its persistence in Southern swamps.
Mark Michaels was about 8 years old when the ivory bill captured his imagination. “I was a very avid birder at the time, and the ivory bill was just this amazing icon,” he said.
Ivory-billed woodpecker officially declared extinct, along with 22 other species
Rumors of the bird rekindled his interest as an adult. A lawyer by training, Michaels partnered with Louisiana native Frank Wiley, who died in 2017, to search for the bird there.
The pair deployed an ivory bill decoy and imitated its drumming to try to draw out the real thing. Michaels has had 10 “possible sightings,” he said, including one last year during an overcast autumn morning that he is “absolutely positive” was an ivory bill.
“Every other time I’ve had some window of doubt. But with this one, no doubt.” he said. “I yelled, ‘Ivory bill!'”
“It discredits good science”
But to convince others, ivory bill hopefuls know they need more than just firsthand testimony.
A few years ago, Michaels partnered with Latta and the National Aviary to search for a tract somewhere in Louisiana. The team is keeping the exact spot a secret. Decades of hunting may have made the birds particularly skittish around humans.
“We want to protect it from too many people,” Latta said. “If it was known, there’s certainly the possibility that large numbers of people could descend on the area.”
The group went high-tech, flying drones over the canopy to spot possible ivory bills in flight, setting up unmanned trail cameras trained on trees to capture them foraging for grubs and swabbing possible nesting cavities in search of their DNA.
So far, the team has offered a series of grainy videos and pictures to Fish and Wildlife to try to stave off an extinction verdict.
One photo shows a large bird at a distance clinging to a tree with what appears to be a white “saddle” on its back, a distinct sign of an ivory bill. A video shot from a drone and presented to Fish and Wildlife in July shows hints of a white trailing edge on the wings, another field mark.
John W. Fitzpatrick, director emeritus of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who wrote a 2005 paper in the journal Science presenting his own ivory bill evidence, described their submissions as credible.
“Taken together, these data are extremely interesting indeed,” he said by email. “Many individual images, especially in several of the videos, are difficult to reconcile as any other woodpecker than ivory-billed.”
But the appearance of the ivory bill’s smaller cousin, the pileated woodpecker, complicates this quest. Both have a red crest and black-and-white plumage, each arranged differently. To the untrained (and often the trained) eye, the two types of woodpeckers look strikingly similar.
John Dillon, president of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, wishes humans hadn’t driven the bird to extinction. “No one would be happier than I to learn of its proven existence,” he wrote in a comment to Fish and Wildlife.
But he remains unconvinced by the audio and video recordings over the past 15 years. “The damage in persisting with the idea that this bird exists when there is no supporting evidence is widespread. It leaves room for charlatans at worst and unaccountable subjectivity at best, and it discredits good science.”
Robbins, the University of Kansas ornithologist, noted the National Aviary’s work has not been peer-reviewed. He called the evidence the team has presented so far “nothing short of laughable.”
We must do more to save the species from the fate of the ivory-billed woodpecker
Michaels wants to gather better proof, something akin to James Tanner’s famous close-ups of wild ivory bills in the 1930s. Tanner, a Cornell-trained ornithologist, waited for weeks to get his photographs.
“The birds are out there”
Declaring a species extinct is rare and difficult to do, requiring a series of exhaustive surveys that fails to turn up a specimen. Before last year, the federal government had only done it 11 times.
“No one wants to have to do that,” said Amy Trahan, a biologist at the Fish and Wildlife Service who evaluated whether the woodpecker is gone for good.
The agency’s “golden standard” for convincing proof, she said, is a photo or video that multiple independent experts interpret as an ivory-billed woodpecker.
Yet reports of the woodpecker’s death, ivory bill hopefuls note, have been exaggerated before. The bird was thought to be lost in the early 20th century only for a researcher to discover a mating pair in Florida in 1924.
Bobby Harrison, an avid birder and retired professor of photography at Oakwood University in Alabama, said bird scientists are too quick to dismiss potential sightings from amateurs. There are some woods researchers rarely visit.
“They’re not going to venture out into these swamps where there are snakes and, in some cases, there are alligators,” said Harrison, who submitted his own 10-second video of a bird in flight taken from his canoe two years ago . “Sometimes I have to get out of my canoe and I have to haul it over logs, haul it through the mud.”
For many ivory bill believers, keeping the bird on the endangered species list is critical for protecting the South’s remaining slivers of bottomland swamps. These stretches, if not home to the woodpeckers, provide habitat to flocks of ducks, herons and other birds.
But Michaels is sure he’s seen it, despite the doubters.
“I know the birds are out there,” he said. “It’s just that proving it is a really big mountain to climb.”
This article is part of Animalia, a column exploring the strange and fascinating world of animals and the ways in which we appreciate, admire and depend on them.
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