Has the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Escaped Extinction After All?

For many years, American Ivory-billed woodpeckers inhabited the dense hardwood forests of the southern United States. But in the 19th century, the American subspecies began to vanish. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed declaring the bird extinct.

Now, an ornithology team says the extinction claims are exaggerated. And it’s offered new, albeit scant, photographic evidence of the bird’s existence.

The elusive ‘Holy Grail bird’

Like other wood harvesting birds, the American Ivory-billed Woodpecker had a distinct appearance. Striking white and red details at its crown and wings contrasted starkly with the bird’s jet-black body. Standing at an average height of 51cm and showcasing a 76cm average wingspan, the ivory-billed was fairly large. The species’ distinct characteristics made it especially sought after by ornithologists, casual birders, and collectors.

Habitat loss from large-scale logging was the primary cause of its disappearance. But trophy hunting and poaching also victimized the birds, which people at the poverty line eventually ate en masse.

The once abundant species became such a rare sight that birders began referring to it as the “Holy Grail bird”. In fact, the last verified sighting of an American Ivory-billed Woodpecker was in 1944. In the public imagination, it eventually evolved into a cryptozoological creature like Bigfoot, sought after, allegedly glimpsed, but its existence never confirmed.

Last fall, the FWS proposed placing the American Ivory-billed Woodpecker on the extinct list. The proposal, for which the FWS held a public hearing in early 2022, stirred up quite a bit of commotion.

“Some people cannot believe a bird can defy documentation by modern humans because we have such dominion over nature,” subject matter expert Geoffrey Hill told the Guardian, “but it is endlessly interesting because if it has done that, it’s one pretty impressive bird.”

Illustration of the male (above) and female (below) ivory-billed woodpecker, circa 1874. Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library

Illustration of the male (above) and female (below) Ivory-billed Woodpecker, circa 1874. Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library

Recent findings

Led by aviary expert Steve Latta, the team in question just wrapped a three-year research expedition into the hardwood forests of Louisiana. Its primary mission? To track down the elusive Holy Grail bird. To do so, the group peppered the research site with microphones and unmanned trail cameras. They also used a camera-equipped drone.

Now Latta’s group is on the verge of publishing its findings, pending peer review. Comparing the markings, morphology, and foraging behavior of the birds they observed with those in historic photographs and videos, the researchers concluded that the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct after all.

“Our findings, and the inferences drawn from them, suggest an increasingly hopeful future for the ivory-billed woodpecker,” the report states.

“No one has held a camera and got a picture of one in years because it’s a scarce bird in tough swampy habitat and they don’t want people close to them because they’ve been shot at for 150 years,” said Hill, who did not participate in Latta’s expedition, but led a similar (though unsuccessful) effort in 2005.

“They have better eyes than we do, they are high in the trees and actively flee people. They aren’t great thinkers but they have developed a pretty simple strategy to avoid people.”