History of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

History of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Before European contact, some Native American nations valued the heads and bills of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, and these body parts were traded widely. Ivorybills also appear to have been consumed as food at one time. Mark Catesby was the first European scientist to describe and paint the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Alexander Wilson’s description of his experience with a wounded bird and John James Audubon’s poetic language and stunning renditions helped to solidify the bird’s status as a symbol of beauty and of the southern bottomland and swamp forests it inhabited.

The extent of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s pre-contact and colonial range is uncertain, but it may have extended at one time as far north as Ohio and Pennsylvania, as far west as the eastern Great Plains, and into fairly high elevations in the Ozarks and Appalachians. By the time of the Civil War, however, this range already was shrinking dramatically. Like related species such as Mexico’s Imperial Woodpecker and the Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker species or subspecies, the Ivorybill was probably never more than locally common in its range in North America. Post-Civil War biologists assumed that the species was fleeing from the advance of civilization and that it was destined to disappear, just as many of their contemporaries believed that Native Americans and the forests themselves were similarly doomed by “progress.” This assumption became more prevalent as time went on, and it served as a self-fulfilling prophecy, because demand for Ivorybill specimens grew and the remaining birds were killed in large numbers.

By the 1920s, many believed the Ivory-billed Woodpecker to be extinct, and it was rediscovered several times. The last of these encounters, in 1932, led to the only formal study of a family group of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. The study, conducted by James T. Tanner, grew out of a 1935 expedition by Arthur A. Allen and Paul Kellogg of Cornell University to record bird sounds. The expedition included a visit to Louisiana’s Singer Tract where J.J. Kuhn, the local game warden, led the team to an Ivory-billed Woodpecker nest. This made it possible to record and film the birds, and enabled Tanner to study the family group from 1937 to 1939.

Most of what we know about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in North America comes from Tanner’s study in the Singer Tract. Except for a few photographs taken in Florida in the 1920s, the Singer Tract photographs are the only undisputed images of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers from the United States mainland. Similarly, the recordings made in 1935 are the only such recordings that have never been seriously questioned. The Singer Tract was logged in the early 1940s, and the last generally accepted sighting from that area took place in 1944, although reports from the area continued at least until 1948.

Since that time, there have been more than 200 reported sightings of Ivorybills, many by competent observers and respected ornithologists. Audio, video, and still image evidence has been obtained, most recently by Cornell University in Arkansas, by Auburn University along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida, and by independent searchers in various locations, all since 2004. None of the evidence has been of sufficient quality or quantity as to be generally accepted as proof of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s continued existence.

Nevertheless, researchers with Project Principalis and the National Aviary have seen and heard enough to believe the Ivory-billed Woodpecker persists at low densities in various southeastern locations. We believe that new technologies will enable us to test this hypothesis in a variety of creative ways – using remote monitoring, environmental DNA (eDNA), and GIS data. We hope not only to document the continued existence of this majestic bird once and for all, but also to begin gathering data on its behavior and ecology, so that it can, hopefully, be saved.

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