Does the ivory-bill still exist?
As I See It
Monday, December 20, 2010
Media contact: Rodney Barreto
In the spring of 2005, news swept the United States
and much of the world that the ivory-billed woodpecker, long
thought to be extinct, had been found in the Cache River National
Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas.
The news was electrifying to birders and
Gene Sparling, an amateur ornithologist from Hot
Springs, Ark., had reported seeing one adult male ivory-bill in the
Cache River refuge on Feb. 11, 2004. Other ornithologists soon
searched for documentation and proof that ivory-bills still
existed. They seemed to make their case when David Luneau of the
University of Arkansas at Little Rock made a short, blurry
videotape of a reported ivory-bill taking flight from a tree.
Some of the groups that reviewed the evidence and
supported the claim that the woodpecker, with its 3-foot wingspan
and signature whitish-ivory bill, still existed included the
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, The
Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some
wanted to believe that the gigantic woodpecker, known by such names
as white-back, pearly bill and even Lord God bird, still flew
safely somewhere. The name "Lord God bird" came from people seeing
the bird and exclaiming, "Lord God, what a bird!"
Had the short video clip been clear, that would
have been one thing. However, ornithologists across the country
weighed in, and many believed the searchers had spotted the
smaller, common pileated woodpecker.
Not long after the reported Arkansas sighting, a
team led by an Auburn University professor said it had audio
recordings of what members believed were the sounds of one or more
ivory-bills in the Choctawhatchee River basin in the Florida
Panhandle. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
(FWC) mobilized a team to deal with questions and issues about the
Choctawhatchee finding, which proved untrue.
To understand the discussion as to whether
ivory-bills still exist, you have to understand something of the
bird itself and the history of our country.
Adult ivory-bills measured 19 to 21 inches, were
bluish-black in color and had white markings on the neck, sides and
back, resembling a white saddle. Both male and female birds sported
a prominent top crest, which was red in males and black in
Early settlers and frontiersmen reported that male
Native American Indians, particularly chieftains, wore the bills of
ivory-billed woodpeckers on their belts or as part of breast
plates. The author of "In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker,"
Jerome A. Jackson, points to the archaeological record showing that
the heads and bills of both ivory-billed and pileated woodpeckers
were much in demand by Indians, sometimes far outside the birds'
range. He mentions the recent discovery of an Indian burial in
Colorado with ivory-bills on the deceased, more than 1,000 miles
from recognized ivory-bill habitat.
Jackson and other authors accurately point to the
fact that Indians armed with bows and arrows weren't the death
knell of the species. Logging was.
Ivory-bills were found primarily in the Southeast's
virgin hardwood forest river bottoms and longleaf pine forests, and
were well documented in Florida and a dozen other southeastern
states. With their powerful chisel-like bill, they foraged on lots
of dying and dead trees. such as sweet gums, ash and longleaf pine,
removing the bark in search of insects and larvae. Ornithologists
say ivory-bills needed immense areas to feed - perhaps 10 to 12
square miles of old-growth forest per pair.
As one forest after another fell to an expanding
country's insatiable demand for wood, ivory-bills began to vanish.
Ornithologists say the species was extremely rare after 1900.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Florida.
Whether an ivory-bill was actually spotted in the
Cache River NWR is still a matter of debate. I have my own ideas,
but if the sighting was accurate, it would have required dozens and
dozens of breeding pairs of birds over the past 100 or so years for
birds to still exist today.
Following the Cache River announcement,
river-bottom searches were initiated in Florida and five other
states. No definitive sightings emerged.
We still have the pileated relative of the
ivory-bill. Yet we want to believe the most magnificent of North
American woodpeckers still exists, somewhere. Although it seems
unlikely, time will tell