Mystery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

It was April 1944. Don Eckelberry,who worked for Audubon, went to Singer Tract in Madison Parrish, Louisiana on a mission. His goal was to spot a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker. A few months prior, this bird was seen by Richard Pough, who later became the first president of the Nature Conservancy. Singer Tract was a large stretch of primeval southern forest that was owned by the Singer Sewing Company. The logging rights to this forest were sold to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. The National Audubon Society tried to buy the land from Chicago Mill but were unsuccessful.

Unfortunately, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers need large sections of forest to thrive. And Singer Tract happened to be where a few of these woodpeckers were living at the time. Tragically, the forest at Singer Tract was eventually logged.

But in April 1944, Don Eckelberry did find his female Ivory-billed in Singer Tract. She was alone in an uncut area of the forest. Eckelberry wrote in a letter to John Baker, “It is sickening to see what a waste a lumber company can make of what was a beautiful forest.” Eckelberry’s observation in April 1944 was the last universally accepted sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

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A photograph of Singer Tract from 1937 (Image via fws.gov/ivorybill)

And so the mystery began. Does the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still exist, or is it extinct? It’s been a topic of much debate and study over the years. There have been sightings reported, but nothing is confirmed and the evidence is almost non-existent.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is considered the third largest woodpecker in the world, at 20 inches in length and a 30 inch wingspan.  It’s body is black with large white patches on its wings/neck, and a bright red crest. Historically, this species was found in the Southeastern United States from Texas east to North Carolina, north up to lower Ohio, and south to Cuba. The Cuban Ivory-billed is considered a subspecies and may also possibly be extinct. They lived in thick, uninterrupted hardwood forests and swamps that had a lot of dead and decaying trees.

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A male and female switching parenting duties (Image taken by Arthur A. Allen in April 1935, via wikipedia)

What cause the decline of this species? There are multiple factors, including hunting for sport, science, and used in Native American culture/trading. However, habitat destruction throughout the early 1900’s broke up the Ivory-billed’s territory, which prevented them from being able to sustain their populations. In 1939 it was estimated that only around 24 individuals lived in the United States. The number of birds alive today, if any,  is unknown.

Much of what we know comes from research in the mid-1930s. In 1935, Arthur Allen (founder of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), Peter Paul Kellogg (Cornell professor), James Tanner (Cornell graduate student), George Miksch Sutton (a bird artist/ornithologist), and Jack Kuhk (a local game warden), set up camp in the swamps of Singer Tract to study the Ivory-billed. They did find a nest in a maple tree and studied it for a few weeks. They were able to capture audio and video recordings on this expedition. The recordings made by Kellogg in 1935 are still used today in recent searches.

James Tanner went back to Singer Tract between 1937 and 1939 as part of his dissertation. He was able to study these birds in-depth. In this trip he was able to observe a young woodpecker being raised by its parents for 16 days. Tanner banded this young bird, the only one of its species to ever be banded. He published The Ivory-billed Woodpecker in 1942, which featured his research and two pictures of Jack Kuhk with the chick perched on his arm and head. These were the only 2 pictures of an Ivory-billed juvenile, until a few more were discovered by Tanner’s wife Nancy in 2009.  Tanner traveled a total of 45,000 miles around the southeast, but only ever found the woodpeckers at Singer Tract. He died in 1991, believing that the bird was extinct.

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Jack Kuhk with the young Ivory-billed on his shoulder (Photograph taken by James Tanner in 1938, via smithsonianmag.com

There many still be hope though. Scientists are still looking, and there have been sightings in the past 20 years. The Cornell Lab searched for the woodpeckers in 2002 in Louisiana with no luck. In 2004 Gene Sparling, an Arkansas native, spotted one while kayaking in Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. This sparked interested again, so Tim Gallagher (from the Cornell Lab) and Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College in Alabama went down to “The Big Woods” in Arkansas to investigate. They sucessfully spotted one on that trip. Other employees and students of the Lab have made trips to Arkansas as well and may have seen the woodpeckers too. A search for the Cuban Ivory-billed took place in January 2016 by Tim Gallagher and Martjan Lammertink, but they yielded no results.

So the question remains: does the Ivory-billed still exist? Studies are ongoing, and at the moment there is not enough data for scientists to agree on this predicament. Only time will tell if this elusive species will be resurrected from the dead once again. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a lesson in how human carelessness can cause destruction far beyond what we anticipate in our environment. From this experience we can learn just how important conservation is to all species. Hopefully this Ivory-billed Woodpecker can be found again one day. In the meantime, it will remain a mystery.

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A male Ivory-billed Woodpecker in 1935, taken by Arthur A. Allen

 

To learn more check out the following links:

The Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Heads to Cuba by Audubon

The Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A Close Encounter with the Rarest Bird by Stephen Lyn Bales for Smithsonian Magazine

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Author: BirdNation

I am an avid birder, teacher, and nature lover. I primarily birdwatch throughout New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania.

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