The Extinct Woodpecker That Just Won’t Die

Human beings have a tendency to eradicate other species without even knowing it. Yet for a few charismatic species, like the ivory-billed woodpecker, we see their ghosts in every lonely tree.

The last confirmed sighting of the woodpecker was in 1944, a few years after a lumber company logged the area around the bird’s nest. But like its cousin-in-extinction, the Tasmanian tiger, the ivory-billed woodpecker lives on in the public imagination.

Every now and then, a new sighting, recording, or academic paper surfaces, and bird lovers from every corner of the map flock together to debate the old question: Do a few ivory-billed woodpeckers remain out there?

The latest example is a paper published in Ecology and Evolution this week. In it, the authors sift through an impressive 10 years worth of audio recordings, wildlife cameras, and drone footage.

Their conclusion?

“Using multiple lines of evidence, the data suggest intermittent but repeated presence of multiple individual birds with field marks and behaviors consistent with those of ivory-billed woodpeckers,” Steven C. Latta and his co-authors wrote. “Our findings, and the inferences drawn from them, suggest that not all is lost for the ivory-billed woodpecker and that it is clearly premature for the species to be declared extinct.”

two woodpeckers in black and white

A photo of a nesting pair taken in the mid-1930s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


This bold proclamation triggered the usual academic skirmishes, with dissenting voices airing their opposition in The New York Times.

“The trouble is, it’s all very poor video,” Chris Elphick, a conservation biologist at the University of Connecticut, told the paper. “I don’t think this changes very much, frankly…I would love to be wrong.”

‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers

“I would love to be wrong” is a familiar refrain amongst dissenters in the ivory-billed woodpecker extinction debate. When ExplorersWeb covered the contestation last year, our author ended his story — which was decidedly in the extinction camp — with the very same sentiment.

As birding legend David Sibly wrote in 2007: “An important point to understand is that the scientific debate does not directly address the question of presence or absence, only whether the bird’s presence has been confirmed. It has not. From the lack of confirmation, one can infer absence, but absence cannot be proven. The burden of proof is on those who claim to have found the bird.”

It’s in this spirit that ivory-billed woodpecker skeptics voice their concerns. And if the quotes in The NY Times are any indication, those unconvinced by the evidence so far haven’t had their position swayed by the — to their minds — meager proof offered by the recent paper.

an illustration of an ivory-billed woodpecker

The ivory-billed woodpecker was a distinctive and beautiful bird but shares a passing similarity to the pileated woodpecker. That resemblance is muddying the extinction question. Illustration: Wikimedia Commons


Why can no one get a clear photo of one?

“There are these incredibly rare birds that live in the middle of the Amazon that people can get good, identifiable photographs of,” Elphick continued to The New York Times. “And yet people have spent hundreds of thousands of hours trying to find and photograph ivory-billed woodpeckers in the United States. If there’s really a population out there, it’s inconceivable to me that no one could get a good picture.”

When ExplorersWeb wrote about scientists developing statistical models around the probable extinction date of the Tasmanian tiger, we noted that those scientists gave heavier weight to sightings by experts.

Latta certainly counts as an ivory-billed woodpecker expert. And he told The NY Times he saw one — for sure — in 2019.

“I couldn’t sleep for, like, three days,” Dr. Latta said. “It was because I had this opportunity and I felt this responsibility to establish for the rest of the world, or at least the conservation world, that this bird actually does exist.”

What’s at stake

It’s tempting to write the entire conversation off as quintessentially academic — bird nerds making abstract points that have no bearing on the real world. But the stakes are very real.

Some scientists say that officially declaring the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct would free up conservation resources for other species. As ornithologist Richard O. Prum told the newspaper, why waste funds “chasing ghosts” when money could be used to save “other genuinely endangered species and habitats.”

Others fear that the extinction declaration could lead to the destruction of the final bits of habitat that might contain a holdout population of the once-widespread species.

As for me, I was born and raised in the ivory-billed woodpecker’s native forests. I love the idea that somewhere, a “Good Lord Bird” just swooped through the pines. I choose hope in the face of insubstantial evidence.

I’d love to be right.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).