Birding Today: The ivory-billed woodpecker may or may not be extinct | Lifestyles


The Ghost, or the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, has been in the news for several years. Some claim he is alive and well and was seen until 2019, and others said he has not been seen since 1987 in Cuba.

In the early 1900s, conservationists warned that the ivory beak was heading towards extinction.

From 1937 to 1939, Cornell University doctoral student James Tanner researched the ivory-billed woodpecker in the 80,000-acre Singer Tract along the Tensas River in the Louisiana bayous.

Prior to the 2004 discovery of The Ghost at Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas, it was the last authenticated sighting in the United States.

There are official photos from 1935 to March 1940 released by USF&W Services Southeast Region. The last confirmed sighting was in 1944 by Richard Pough at John’s Bayou. Pough was an Audubon staffer at the time.

With too little too late, President Franklin Roosevelt received a call to save the area from logging, which would completely destroy the habitat and food sources of the last six birds seen at the time, or so he thought- we. Attempts failed to get the Louisiana Governor and Congress to condemn the land in a last-ditch effort to save the species.

It is strongly believed that the last two separate populations considered subspecies are both extinct.

Although the species was presumed extinct in the late 1910s, it was both filmed and studied by Tanner and his constituents. As surprising as it may seem, the last sighting accepted by Pough, who later became president of the Nature Conservancy, was claimed and declared extinct 20 years before it was studied and filmed in the 1930s.

Even more surprisingly, the sighting of the list was with far less evidence than a hundred subsequent citizen reports collected in the 21st century. This evidence is preserved in the 2010 Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Plan maintained by the United States Fish and Wildlife Services, including non-state-of-the-art photographs through Mission Ivorybill.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is and was the largest woodpecker in the country with a large off-white bill and two white streaks ending in a white triangle on the back. It is thought to have been confused with the great common woodpecker with a black beak and all-black back. Even in flight, the ivory bill had white primaries and secondaries, as well as some underwings.

NPR reported in 2004 that video footage in an Arkansas swamp was taken, albeit blurry, but the new sounds persuaded some skeptics the sighting was real. Christopher Joyce said there were some gems among the species-specific Cornell recordings – like the double strikes or the call of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

You decide if it deserves a doubt on extinction.

Deb Hirt is a wild bird rehabilitator and professional photographer living in Stillwater.


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