The National Aviary is still caring for our flock during this temporary closure.

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Donate to our Emergency Care Efforts today.

The National Aviary is still caring for our flock during this temporary closure.

You can support the National Aviary and the animals in our care during these uncertain times.

Donate to our Emergency Care Efforts today.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Search

Scenes from the Life of An Ivory-billed Woodpecker Searcher

By Mark A. Michaels, Research Associate

 

In late 1969 or early 1970, when I was a fifth-grader, Frank Schwarz, my best friend and birding buddy, shared some astonishing news. “I’ve got Carolina Parakeets in the swamp near my house.”

“You’re full of it,” I replied. I was well aware that the last known Carolina Parakeet had died in captivity 50 years before.

“No, really”, he said. “Come see for yourself”.

Frank and I were precocious kids; we had a lot of freedom. Arrangements were made, and one Friday after school, Frank’s mother picked us up and drove us to his house in West Nyack. I’m not sure how many sleepovers I’d had at that point in my life, but West Nyack was farther away than most.

We were up at dawn and headed straight for the swamp. I remember the morning as being gray and raw. Suddenly we heard some raucous squawking, and three parakeets flew past. No more than fifty feet away and no doubt that they were parakeets. “You’re right.” I gasped. “I can’t believe it.”

We had no idea what to do about this amazing discovery. Nor were we able to recognize just how impossible it was, not only because the species was undoubtedly extinct but also because Nyack was, at best, at the very edge of the Carolina Parakeet’s historic range. (There are only three records for the species from New York State). Precocious or not, we were fifth graders after all. We told our parents, of course, but they either disbelieved and indulged us or had no clue themselves.

A few months later, I was up early, well before my mother as usual. And, as was my habit, I started reading The New York Times. To my surprise, there was an article describing how the Monk Parakeet, a South American species of similar size, had established itself in the New York area, most likely after having escaped from a shipping container at John F. Kennedy International Airport. My heart sank a little; but mystery solved, which was satisfying in its own right.

Frank and I already knew about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a species that was, if anything, more romantic than the Carolina Parakeet. And one for which there remained some hope of survival. Searching for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is something I never thought would be possible at the time, but the seeds were planted that gray morning in a West Nyack swamp, a swamp that is undoubtedly a subdivision or strip mall five decades later.

Flash forward to 2009. On a late November morning, another Frank, Frank Wiley (who would be my search partner until his death in 2017), and I hiked through muddy Louisiana fields to a stand of willows, laid our raingear on the soggy ground, and waited, bracing ourselves against 45 degree temperatures. This was not what most people would consider Ivorybill habitat, but we had received very credible reports from the landowner and had already captured an intriguing image on a remote camera.

Because this was a stakeout, we were focused on what we might see, not what we might hear; neither one of us thought to activate our handheld recording devices. We didn’t expect to be struck by what some call “the curse of the Ivorybill.”

Time passed. The sun rose. I had my back against a tree. Frank was ten yards northwest of me, lying on his side. He seemed to snore just before a barrage of toy trumpet-like calls erupted, coming from at least two sources. After about 10 seconds, the calls stopped as suddenly as they had started.

“Frank,” I wasn’t too shaken to hiss. “Frank.” No response. “Frank!” He opened an eye. “Frank, did you hear that?” I managed, probably too loud. “Mmmm-hmmm,” was all he said.

“Just like the ones one the Singer Tract recordings, right?”

“Mmmm-hmmmm.”

I’d already been searching for a couple of years, during which time I’d had some possible auditory encounters and a possible sighting that I later discounted. But this was the first time, I was truly convinced I’d heard Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Some doubts would seep in later. They usually do.

The next morning Frank and I went to a different spot, just a few hundred yards away, also on the edge of the beanfield. Frank brought two cypress dowels and a dove decoy that he had painted to resemble an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.


He mounted the decoy on a dying honey locust tree that had been extensively stripped of bark. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers do a lot of their feeding by scaling bark from recently dead and dying trees.

Frank picked up the dowels and imitated the characteristic “BAM-bam” or double knock, the Ivorybill’s signature drum. He did several of these double knocks over the next few minutes and then concealed himself at the base of the honey locust.

A large bird that I recognized as a woodpecker flew into a nearby treetop. I fixed on it and forgot about Frank, who got up do another double knock, causing the bird to take off with loud, stiff sounding wingbeats. I couldn’t get a good look as it flew over my head and over the edge of the beanfield before arcing back into the woods. All I could be sure was that there had been a lot of white.

The sound of the wingbeats, though, was indelible and probably diagnostic. Frank heard them too. “Let’s put a camera here,” he suggested. A few days later, that camera captured what looks like a female Ivorybill.

That experience left me with a deep sense of responsibility. I have been committed to documenting this rare and controversial species ever since. Frank and I co-founded Project Coyote (now Project Principalis) with that intention. I am hopeful that the collaboration between Project Principalis and the National Aviary will conclusively document the Ivorybill, generate new information about the species’ biology and behavior, and pave the way for a concerted effort to save this iconic bird.